From its provoking, intriguing title to its very last page, Azar Nafisi's book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, partly a narrative biography, partly a history of a nation and its people, and partly critical analysis of great American and British authors, is astonishing, enlightening, and important. Much like Marjane Satrapi's amazing graphic novels, Nafisi pulls back the headscarves, the long black robes dictated by the Guardian Council, to show us the modern women of Iran and how they fight to maintain their sense of identity.
Focusing in a large part around the seven students Nafisi convinced to meet in her apartment after quitting her job at the University of Tehran, the book introduces us to each of the young women and gives a thumbnail account of her life and its hardships and its joys. There is an early image in the book when the narrator talks to a painter student of hers about color. Paradise, the painter tells her, the color of her paradise is swimming pool blue. A year after the revolution, her father died, the government confiscated their house which included a big swimming pool where she had trained regularly. My paradise is down at the bottom of that swimming pool, she tells her teacher.
And that in a nutshell is why such a book like Lolita is so meaningful, so powerful in a place like Iran. In a country where young girls can be arrested for eating an apple to lasciviously or for licking ice cream in public, where the very first action upon seizure of power during the Iranian Revolution (before even writing a new constitution) was to lower the age of consent for marriage from eighteen down to nine, a book about a middle aged man who destroys the life of a pubescent girl is all too familiar.
There is much here for fans of Nabokov in general, not just Lolita, but especially (and blackly humorously) An Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov's most Kafkan story. The mindless, impenetrable mysteries of authoritarianism were wonderfully grasped in Kafka and regardless of ideology powering the system they are almost always universally the same. For Nabokov, who lived under such a system in the Soviet Union, or for Nafisi in Iran, the repression in all its brutal absurdity is the same.
Consider that in Iran, under the mullahs, the position of film censor was held by a nearly blind man. It is a curious feature of totalitarian government, as noted by Kundera, that irony is completely and entirely dead among the political class, that the sheer humor to be derived from a blind censor is never apparent. It's black humor is unknown. "Our world under the mullahs' rule," Nafisi writes, "was shaped by the colorless lenses of the blind censor. Not just our reality, but also our fiction had taken on this curious coloration in a world where the censor was the poet's rival in rearranging and shaping reality."
What becomes crystal clear as you listen to Nafisi's narration, is what a radical act reading is, how it is peering into a created world and determining your relation to it, it is an act of discovery that sneaks in self-discovery. To discuss books, to talk with a class about them is to articulate your own thinking, it is to think aloud about nothing less than self-discovery. It is all the more important an act of personal revolution when one lives under a totalitarian regime that would dictate to you your personality and appropriate and inappropriate thoughts and beliefs about the world around you. To then discuss with another person your own intimate creation of a world shared with the author is to create an intimacy with others, it is a connection you make of your innermost self with others' innermost selves, it is a connection of your projected conception of yourself with others' projected conception of theirselves.
It is, in short, nearly the most important thing in human life.
And for repressive forces, it is perhaps the most dangerous rebellion of all. Or as Nabokov puts it, "Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."
The book's second part is primarily made up of a thumbnail history of the Iranian Revolution in which the author found herself whirled. What's surprising is that even in its shrunken form, the history adds to the complexity of the picture in a way American accounts never seem capable of doing. That the early stages of the Revolution was not primarily religious, but that they came to dominate after factionalism crippled the more secular-minded of the youthful revolutionaries and the communist leaders, was something one rarely hears in accounts here in America.
It is a step back into the past even more so than the first part. Told from America, the book's first part takes place in 1995 after Afisi has quit the University of Tehran; the second part -- a discussion of The Great Gatsby forming its central theme -- takes place when she was still employed there. Managing to avoid the immediate purge of disloyal and impure employees from the university, the author was constantly amidst the fire, her classes challenging not only students’ abilities to analyze texts but also their blinkered views of the world and how everything is filtered through the prism of revolutionary fervor.
This culminates in a mock trial during class in which an intolerant young man as the prosecutor accuses Gatsby of being an immoral work, while a more liberal student defends the novel as its counsel. Nafisi herself sits in the trial as the book itself. In one debate, it is discussed how literature is one of the best ways of learning empathy, of putting yourself in another person's shoes, and in this way we learn how complex people are, how multifaceted and not so black and white. This can be a curb to ruthlessness; thus a moral duty to read ever more complex works; intellectually skimpy novels with black and white caricatures of characters are less likely to assist in the development this moral sense and in fact can retard it.
Nafisi tells in her book's third part, this time discussing Henry James, of how it was during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. These tempestuous two middle sections contains one of the best glimpses into the human heart of this time is when Nafisi sees the televised confession of an executed military man who had been responsible for her father's imprisonment when she was a child. No matter how much she hated the man and wished for a revenge upon him, his death even, this shaken, shell of a person, repeating the faked confession makes her feel even her own self has been cheapened.
The book's fourth part, as the class turns to Jane Austen, turns its focus on the Islamic Revolution's madness when it comes to women. There are too many absurdities to cover within a short review. The banning of nail polish and makeup, the government mandated wardrobe hiding nearly all outward signs of one’s physique, the absurdity of monstrous sheets hung at beaches to segregate the sexes, not to mention the aforementioned Sharia-based nine year old marriage age. This prompts one class wit to remark, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man with or without a good fortune must be in need of a nine year old virgin wife."
Which is not to say that everyone else is less oppressed. Going to a concert, one of the few frowned upon but grudgingly accepted entertainments, the crowd is reminded not to behave in a non-Islamic way, which is to say they are warned against showing any emotion or enjoyment. Imagine! A concert of wooden faced musicians, denied even the physicality of swaying or tapping their feet, playing the music of The Mambo Kings to a likewise stoic and immobile crowd. Even applause is silenced by the Revolutionary Guards who stand in attendance, ready to crush even the slightest manifestation of enjoyment.
Nevertheless, Nafisi constructs her book so admirably that she turns to society as a reflection of the novels being studied. Thus Henry James' revulsion to WWI is a meditation on the Iran-Iraq war, Gatsby turns on class consciousness and what is the appropriate future of which to dream, and Austen, while dominated by the idea of marriage and male/female relationships, also circles around behavior and its contradictions between private and public.
In hearing her stories, in listening to her disquisitions on what is important in novels, Nafisi reminds you of the best professors you’ve ever had. At turns insightful, funny, sensitive to the larger issues that ripple through an author’s work, and capable of expressing her beliefs directly in ways that challenge her listeners but with great respect, Nafisi has written a book that encapsulates a Great Literature class, an Iranian history class, and a good long chat with a friend. The result is nothing less than mesmerizing.