Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

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The title of this book is somewhat misleading. I knew something of the subject matter going in – an “underground” book club in Iran’s capital that read forbidden (and decadent!) western books – but Lolita is only one of several books that is discussed. The other primary ones being The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice. Other works by the four authors often come into the discussion as well.

The author was a professor of western literature at the University of Tehran at the time of the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. (The education field is not generally a good vocation to find oneself in a the time of revolution, let alone teaching western literature in a country undergoing an Islamic Revolution!) Nafisi was educated in the United States and returned to her home country just as the revolution was taking hold. Her excitement soon turned to dismay as oppression – particularly of women and the intelligentsia – became more and more prevalent in the new regime.

The book does not unfold in actual chronological sequence, as we are introduced at the very start to her private book club (meetings were held in Nafisi’s home) which was formed toward the end of her time in Iran (she left in 1997). It is often through the personal stories told by the handful of students in this underground book club that we learn of the vile and relentless oppression that women faced (still face?) in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Much of the book’s narrative focuses on the requirement that women wear a veil, something the author and others refused to do, resulting in great persecution.

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We also learn more of the horrors of the long war between Iraq and Iran. The tactic of “human wave” maneuvers where “thousands of Iranian soldiers, mainly very young boys ranging in age from ten to sixteen and middle-aged and old men, cleared the minefields by walking over them.” Also a result of that war were the many bombing raids on Tehran, with Nafisi (along with family and students) frequently seeking shelter, sometimes reading as they wait for an all clear signal. One of my favorite passages of the book speaks about this:

“If a sound can be preserved in the same way as a leaf or a butterfly, I would say that somewhere within the pages of my Pride and Prejudice, that most polyphonic of all novels, and my Daisy Miller is hidden like an autumn leaf the sound of the red siren.”

(There were color-coded sirens for when bombs were on the way, imminent or immediate)

Overall, though, I had several problems with this book, some admittedly due to a cultural bias (e.g., the introduction of characters whose names gave no clue to me – a western reader – as to gender, which I would have to later (and sometimes much later) discover via context, left me not remembering “who was who” for the most part.) but others I felt should have been corrected or dealt with via editing. Primary of these was the author’s seemingly arbitrary use and non-use of quotation marks for dialogue. Why? At least be consistent. I’m not a fan of the ‘no quotation marks dialogue’ in general but when you switch back and forth like the author did, reading becomes more of a chore and too much of one’s reading effort is spent on this issue instead of the story. “I hate when that happens.”

Another bone of contention was the disjointed time line of the book. It’s “all over the place” and again another portion of my reading effort is spent trying to stay oriented chronologically. I was also continually off-put by the author’s caginess regarding some of her personal history. Maybe it is a matter of public record, but what exactly were her own thoughts about the revolution? It seems hinted at that she was actively in favor of it during her time as a student in the U.S., but she’s pretty scant on details. Is she maybe embarrassed to have supported a cause that morphed into such an evil regime (I sure would be), or does she assume the reader already knows her personal history? This latter option would be consistent with the literary parts of the book, where the readers’ familiarity with those works appears to be a given assumption. Fortunately, I was familiar with almost all of the works discussed, but not, for example, Nabokov’s “Invitation to a BeHeading.” At one point, she even writes like we all have the same copy of Pride and Prejudice saying “Please turn to page 148 and visualize the scene as you read the passage…” What?! Thankfully she eventually quotes a passage, but ‘please turn to page…’ Should have been edited out, certainly.

I should also mention that Nafisi spoils the ending of at least three works (no concern to her, obviously, as we were expected to be familiar with all of them to begin with). I was almost expecting her to tell us something about rosebud by the end of the book.

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Am I sorry I read this book? No, but I was expecting more based on reviews and praise that had been heaped upon it. I read this book for a book club meeting. The reactions of the group were mixed, but for “show and tell” one of the members brought a copy of (at least most of) the literary works it discusses – a hefty stack! A couple members had also travelled to the Middle East (in their cases Egypt and Qatar) and shared some of their observations and experiences. I will say the book made for a good and often lively discussion.

A few quotes from the book:

“Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe.” (The author says this to her husband at one point. He doesn’t ask her how she would know what the latter feels like)

After the Revolutionary Guard “raids” a coffee shop “Every time something like this happened, I, like many others, would think of leaving, of going to a place where everyday life was not such a battleground.”

“No one ever taught me to be happy.” An unutterably sad statement by one of Nafisi’s students, Nassrin. This was a depressing book in many ways, but that short sentence pretty much sums it up for many.

(Below: The Ayatollah Khomeini, an architect of evil…)

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12 Comments

  1. Megan said,

    October 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

    As you may have noticed by my one-star review of this book on Goodreads, I did NOT like it. In fact, I gave up on it about halfway through because I discovered that I dreaded picking it back up (not liking a book enough that I don’t bother finishing is just about the only time I give a one-star review). I had some of the same problems you did. The disjointed chronology was terribly distracting, especially because the overly complicated language made it hard to figure out when and where I was, and even what was happening. Even the example you used above, where she calls P&P “that most polyphonic of all novels” makes me cringe. It’s unnecessarily dramatic. I wanted to like it because so many people seemed to love it and really get something out of it, but like you, I found her a little too cagey. I think the story she had to tell is a good one, and if she had simply told it, it would have had a lot more impact on me. I felt like I had to struggle to figure out what she was trying to tell me.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

      Hi Megan,
      I have to admit I cringed when I learned this was the next book on the list for this new book club Ive been attending then saw you had only given it one star! I think I gave it three stars which means I’m not sorry I read it but couldn’t actively recommend it to others. Two stars for me is “I actively dislike it” and one star means i find it harmful to readers. I like this reading group enough to slog through a book I don’t particularly enjoy.

      I think the last two sentences of your comment could have been my review, and I would have saved a lot of typing. 🙂
      -Jay

      Like

  2. Paula Cappa said,

    October 14, 2014 at 10:07 am

    I’ve not read this book but have heard from others some of the same points you’ve made. It sounds like it’s an important book for Americans to read as so much in the middle eastern culture is puzzling. I commend you, Jay, for your persistence!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 14, 2014 at 10:11 am

      Thank you, Paula. I think Megan’s comment above puts it succinctly and correctly. The story Nafisi had to tell is a good one, and she should have just told it. Perfect. 🙂

      Like

  3. Melissa said,

    October 14, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    I had similar problems with this one. I actually wanted to hear more about what the students thought of the western literature. I felt like that was skimmed over in the book.

    Like

  4. Dale said,

    October 14, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    I’ve seen this book all over the place for a while, now. I never had more than a passing interest in it. Now, I probably won’t read it – although I would probably agree that the story she has to tell would be a good one.

    As far as “no quotation marks” go, Marilynne Robinson’s new book uses “no quotation marks” when a character is flashing back in their mind to a situation that had a conversation in it. In the real or present time of the story, regular quotation marks are used. There is a sort of method to the madness but I still have to ask “Why”?

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    • Jay said,

      October 15, 2014 at 9:15 am

      I thought the premise for the book was great, and I was pleased to learn it was not “just about Lolita.” I only wish it had been better executed.

      I wondered if you would be one of the first in line for the new Robinson book. I look forward to reading your thoughts about it in a future Post at Mirror with Clouds… 🙂

      Like

  5. Jason M. said,

    October 15, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Y’know, I haven’t read this — even thought it feels like I SHOULD. But the “cultural bias” factor is huge, the fear of missing out on a lot of information because I don’t have the frame of reference to process all the character names or some of the less-well-known (in the US) historical details.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 15, 2014 at 10:06 am

      Yeah, and it’s doubly hard because a certain amount of erudition about the western works she includes is expected as well.

      Like

  6. hkatz said,

    October 21, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I read this one a while ago and don’t remember all the particulars. One thing I do remember is how much I agreed with her interpretation of Lolita. It was mine too. It’s sad how in the wider culture, people use the name “Lolita” the way the book’s predator and narrator intended it to be used (as a seductive precocious young girl), and forgetting her real identity and how it was destroyed by this elegant, eloquent, urbane predator. The whole book is told from the predator’s POV, with the author allowing little glimpses into what’s really going on with this girl, Dolores (“sorrows”).

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    • Jay said,

      October 24, 2014 at 7:33 am

      Excellent points. It’s almost as if this were “two books for one,” the literary stuff and then the political history of Iran stuff. I’m just god I head read most of the literary works she discusses – I’d have been lost if I hadn’t. 🙂

      Like


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