Reading Lolita in Tehran
A Memoir in Books
Author : Azar Nafisi
Publishers : Fourth Estate
ISBN : 0-00-717848-4
This is a Writer’s book. This a Reader’s book. For the members of this board, this is a Must-Read book. It has accurately been described variously as memoir, as literary criticism, as social commentary – it is all of those and yet transcends these genres by combining successfully in 347 pages of writing that is often poetry in prose.
Azar Nafisi, a professor of English Literature, returns to homeland Iran to live 18 years between 1979 and 1997 in Tehran during the Khomeini regime. Nafisi joins the University to teach ‘wicked writings of a satanic culture’ , amidst the confusion of demonstrations and protests of groups attempting to define the future of Iran after the Shah, till finally the cleric-led revolution settles into the tyranny of a social and political dictatorship. She is expelled from the University for her refusal to wear the veil, later joins another University; and, in the last two years, she gathers around her 7 women, former students of Literature who meet once a week to discuss ‘forbidden’ books and their authors : Nabokov, Austen, Fitzgerald, James, till finally Nafisi returns to the United States.
Nafisi starts with her Reading group and their first book “Lolita”. The narrative spins back and forth in chronological time; each book a foil against a particular span of time. A tad confusing initially, the narrative is soon overtaken by Nafisi’s story and style. The literary criticism is uniquely dramatic against the backdrop of turmoil and unrest, censorship and repression. While insightful of the literary brilliance of the authors and the books, there is a new perception, sharp facets highlighting gender and freedom, two issues that are constantly a refrain through the book and the lives of Nafisi and her students. The girls react with their own brand of conditioning : women behind the Veil in a culture completely alien from the characters in the books they read.
Amazingly, while Nafisi returns forcefully and repeatedly to the indignity of the loss of freedom and resulting loss of identity, as well as the suppressed identity of the women in this culture; modest incidents of human foibles, hope and humanity play strong roles in the narrative. The stories of the students and their families, the characters of the men in her University classes, the student leaders, the other professors – all lightly touched upon but woven deftly into a social and cultural fabric that is unique, exciting, and demands a response from the reader all the time. Nafisi’s little details and tales offer exceptional perceptions and experiences. She has a story to tell it and tells it quite beautifully.
The book is not history - it is more a mirror of how the ideologies of a time worm their way into the lives of men and women and families living in a world where they still need to find paths of freedom for their thoughts and creative passions. Nafisi’s own life and thoughts weave in and out of the narrative, with the Magician, her un-named friend, a symbol of a denied but attainable, defiant freedom, a symbol of what prevents the book from becoming even remotely depressing or cynical.
Personally, for me, sitting and Reading Nafisi in New Delhi, the writing was poetic and fascinating and I savoured every page. That’s rare these days!
Other Reviews Excerpt : “And, without once sinking into sentimentality or making overly large claims for the relative might of the pen over the sword, Nafisi celebrates the power of literature to nourish free thought in climes inhospitable to it.”
Anita Vasudeva © January 2005