Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was surprised that I enjoyed this book. It was recommended to me by a reader of an essay I am writing, and after reading a few Goodreads reviews, I had my doubts. But I found the writing to be articulate, emotional, and intelligent; and it was an enjoyable read.
Azar Nafisi’s memoir is structured as a memory, with the beginning and ending containing a framing structure of a present tense private course she is teaching out of her home for seven promising female students. The middle two chapters (“Gatsby” and “James”) contain past memories leading up to Nafisi’s leaving her academic position in 1995, and, thus, teaching this literature course from the sanctity of her home. I felt that the structure of the story is quite engaging, and Nafisi’s oft-pedantic nature concerning various literature to be quite refreshing against the critical discourse of women’s rights, freedom, tyranny, and such. I think it would be too easy to make this a story only about the antipathy between Iran and “the West,” and the lacing of literatures and literary criticism offers a layered approach to these contentious themes.
As you might presume, my criticism does not contend with the story, its structure, or its popularity. Instead my criticism considers something close to my own sensibility: this content regarding the innumerable influences upon the Iranian government and its revolutionary subjects: namely, who and how those individuals are represented by Nafisi throughout her story.
The difficulty is clear: when criticizing a non-fictional memoir, whom, or what, is one criticizing? Usually it is the author and that author’s real life experiences. It is illogical to criticize any individual’s real life experience, because they will retort with the infallible, “but you weren’t there,” “you didn’t experience it” rejoinder. And, they are verily right to do so. So, as I have no position on these things regarding Iran or Dr. Nafisi’s personal experiences with Iran, I will assume my criticism of a representation. That of the various revolutionary groups in the story, and the students who are given the most prominent voices for these groups: Mr. Nyazi, from Chapter 2; Mr. Ghomi, from Chapter 3; and Mr. Nahvi, in Chapter 4. These are the classroom voices (all male) denouncing Western literature as “decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial” and therefore un-Islamic and a decrepit influence upon Iran’s holy culture, politics, people, etc. (290). I want to promote a shocking argument with these representations in mind: they are correct.
Let me explain.
Dr. Nafisi is writing a book in English for an English audience about reading Western literature in a country that is attempting to eradicate, through criticism and more obvious and violent means, the influence of said literature and culture. Against this argument, a few in the story articulate that literature is innocuous in its ability to cause change, revolution, or independence. It is first voiced against Mr. Nyazi, who possess the fault that he “‘can no longer distinguish fiction from reality’,” and must be reminded that “Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual” (128, 120). The presumption is that Mr. Nyazi, et al are taking literature to literally and bestowing it too much power. The counterargument is that literature has little or no power, or is rather, not a “how-to manual,” as voiced by a student of Dr. Nafisi’s, Zarrin, who argues, “Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that?” (135). No. But they did commit suicide in droves after the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings. To this extent, the social purpose of literature is to communicate, reflect, and inspire. And to this even Zarrin concedes that Gatsby is “an amazing book… It teaches you to value your dreams…” something the Islamic Republic cannot afford (ibid, my emphasis).
In order to consider this argument, one must accede that literature is influential; it’s form, language, illustrations, chapters, structure, everything; all of this informs and mirrors a culture. Whether you read or not, reading influences our culture in the very form of the solipsistic and silently contemplated novel. Mr. Nyazi knows this when he argues that the West and its literature is a “‘sinister assault on the very roots of our culture'” (126). The problem, the very sincere issue here, is where a person departs from knowing how important literature is to a culture and uses violent means to annihilate its influence. Mr. Nyazi, et al, are far to busy criticizing and violently eliminating a supposedly antithetical literature to be busy doing what he should be doing to combat this “sinister” culture he depicts: creating his own literature. In fact, this is voiced by a student during Dr. Nafisi’s class who states to Mr. Nyazi: “‘Why don’t you write your own novel?'” (133). But that’s the point: how could he? where would he begin?
Art is not created in a bubble. It is not created without the appreciation and understanding of art that comes before or beside it. When eliminating Western literature, Mr. Nyazi has eliminated his people’s own ability to truly triumph over Western literature: with “Eastern” literature. The problem would be for Mr. Nyazi that he would have to engage with the literature itself before overcoming and creating his own works. Hmmm… for example. Nikolai Gogol is considered the first “Russian novelist”. But before him, Russia had a great poet and producer of written art: Alexander Pushkin. The difference between the two? Pushkin imitated and mimicked French style and art, which was necessary to gain influence at the time due to the French influence in Russia’s aristocracy, and Gogol wrote Russian stories with his own Russian style. In other words, Gogol used Russian folk tales to create his stories, where Pushkin used French novels and poems to create his. The point is that Mr. Nyazi is so busy destroying and condemning an influential Western literature that he is unable to become Gogol—in fact, he can’t even be Pushkin! And it is made apparent by a conversation between Mrs. Rezvan and Dr. Nafisi that a national literature is needed because “[t]he state of literature in this country could not be any worse, and the state of English literature is most hopeless of all” (179, my italics).
I wrote earlier that Dr. Nafisi agrees with me that literature and reality often intertwine and heavily influence one another, although many of her characters and her own statements contradict this statement. In the final chapter, Nafisi writes that “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other that had become the object of our desires” (282). Yes. This is the pursuit and love of fiction: that other world. And when Mr. Nyazi, et al, destroy and burn all books that hold those other worlds, then he will finally have incinerated the desire to see and experience a world other than the one he has created. His war against literature is not against Western decadence, etc., but against outside influences in general. Because Power, unlike Art, can exist and flourish inside a bubble.
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