Tuesday 26 January 2010

Reading Lolita In Tehran (Review)

The most memorable and horrifying passage I recall from George Orwell's timeless dystopian novel '1984' comes in a response given to Winston Smith, the main character, by loyal Party member O'Brien.

'You are a flaw in the pattern, Winston. You are a stain that must be wiped out. Did I not tell you just now that we are different from the persecutors of the past? We are not content with negative obediency, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him (...) The command of the old despotisms was "Thou shalt not". The command of the totalitarian was "Thou shalt". Our command is "Thou art".'

Which begs the question: what could, then, have been the command of Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini's Islamic Republic? 'Thou art mine'?

Azar Nafisi's vivid memoir, 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' makes a bold attempt to answer that question. That it fails to provide a final response is not due to any shortcomings on the author's part, but on the chamaleonic nature of totalitarian and theocratic regimes.

'Reading Lolita in Tehran' covers Dr Nafisi's eighteen years living in Iran from the early days of the Revolution in 1979 until her final adieu in 1997. The book opens with a chapter called 'Lolita', after Nabokov's famous novel, in which Azar describes a literary club she held in her house for two years every Thursday. The three following sections are named 'Gatsby', 'James' and 'Austen'. The way she weaves together her own professional background - she used to be a lecturer in English and American Literature at the universities of Tehran and Allameh -, her students' personal stories and the turmoil shaking her country is as well-crafted as the novels they discuss.

Professor Nafisi is a consummate observer and the benefits her perception brings to the reader are multifold. For example, here she is on the connection between the title of her memoir and the novel to which it is related.

I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea. 'Lolita' was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives.

With this sleight of hand she also gets rid of the notion of victimhood. At the time of writing, the death toll keeps rising in Haiti in the aftermath of the worst earthquake to have hit the island in two-hundred years. However, rather than merely seeing the ex-French colony as a deprived nation, let's ask ourselves how and why its fate was decided before its inhabitants even had a chance to make that decision themselves. It is the same with Dr Nafisi's Iran. The Ayatollah didn't rule so ruthlessly because the people were weak, but because he created an infrastructure based on hate and intolerance that allowed him to govern without so much as a strong opposition. And those who were too vocal, were dealt with in a very straightforward and brutal way. However, the women who attend Azar's weekly book club, far from being victims, are rebels. Once inside the professor's house, they all shed their black robes and headscarves and dress in civilian clothes.

'Splashes of color separate one from the next. Each has become distinct through the color and style of her clothes, the color and the length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their head scarves look the same.'

Dr Nafisi spent her younger years in both the UK and the US (she received her doctorate at the university of Oklahoma). This extended sojourn helped colour her analysis of her surroundings, which then filtered down to her pupils. For instance, consider this passage in which one of the book club's members, Mitra, questions the relevance of the novels they read:

'Why is it that stories like Lolita and Madame Bovary - stories so sad, so tragic - make us happy? Is it not sinful to feel pleasure when reading about something so terrible? Would we feel this way if we were to read about it in the newspapers or if it happened to us? If we were to write about our lives here in the Islamic Republic of Iran, should we make our readers happy?'

Nafisi uses Nabokov's definition of a great novel to answer her student's question. She agrees with the late Russian author that each story is a fairy tale and 'every fairy tale offers the potential to surpass limits, so in a sense, the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies.' That's why 'the perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.' In other words, a novel stands for escapism. And no matter how cruel its content can be, this is one of the few exit routes available to people caught in the stronghold of a totalitarian or theocratic regime; even if escapism can be dangerous sometimes.

I found it interesting that, just as it has happened in Cuba for decades, in Iran, Khomeini's government was the chief responsible for making western democracies, especially the US, attractive to its population. Again, Professor Nafisi's sharp pen is at the ready to describe the events around her with a mix of wit and prescience:

'That was when the myth of America started to take hold of Iran. Even those who wished its death were obsessed by it. America had become both the land of Satan and Paradise Lost. A sly curiosity about America had been kindled that in time would turn the hostage-takers into hostages.'

And that's not the only parallel between the two bearded leaders. Just as Fidel clamped down on Cuban intellectuals who did not toe his political line in the 60s, Khomeini carried out a similar cleansing campaign against those who dared to think outside his religious dogma. This all-out attack had an immediate effect on the youth, some of which - after being brainwashed by the overpowering state propaganda - ended up confronting Azar Nafisi at her lectures, whilst quoting the Koran. That's why, when I read the passage that follows (a student's intervention during a 'trial' of Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby'), I was reminded so strongly of Fidel's famous 'words to the intellectuals':

'"Imam Khomeini has relegated a great task to our poets and writers," he droned on triumphantly, laying down one page and picking up another. "He has given them a sacred mission, much more exalted than that of materialistic writers in the West. If our Imam is the shepherd who guides the flock to its pasture, then the writers are the faithful watchdogs who must lead according to the shepherd's dictates."

I will leave you now with my favourite passage from this wonderfully written memoir. About the clip at the end, there's a reason for it. This is the first time I post a book review with music attached to it. But in life there are some moments of pure synchronicity that you just can't ignore. One night, whilst reading Dr Nafisi's book, I happened to have a CD of Chopin's nocturnes playing in the background. Suddenly this particular melody came on and for the duration of it I saw a parallel between Azar's inner world and the restlessness that was engulfing her country. It is the ripple, mid-song, that does it for me.

'Imagine you are walking down a leafy path. It is early spring before sundown around six PM. The sun is in the process of receding, and you are walking alone, caressed by the breezy light of the late afternoon. Then suddenly, you feel a large drop on your right arm. Is it raining? You look up. The sky is still deceptively sunny:only a handful of clouds linger here and there. Seconds later, another drop. Then, with the sun still perched in the sky, you are drenched in a shower of rain. This is how memories invade me, abruptly and unexpectedly: drenched, I am suddenly left alone again on the sunny path, with a memory of the rain.'

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Thursday 28th January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Thanks Cuban, this is a wonderful review of Nafisi's beautiful memoir. I'm grateful for your initial quote from Orwell's 1984.

    It alerts me yet again to something I've been grappling with, the business of excluding the heretics, those who do not tow the party line.

    But totalitarianism is worse. It's not simply about exclusion, it's about obliteration.

    Novelists and writers generally go some way to stop such obliteration from succeeding, but totalitarianism still gets a foothold in places where there are vulnerable, disenfranchised people everywhere. Thanks.

  2. Reading your review of the story of the time of Khomeini's totalitarian, I wonder why there is an appearance of support of the demonstration against the result of the latest election in Iran. When the call should be for citizens of a country to embrace democracy and respect the outcome.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for the pointer.

  4. I've been interesed in literature about Iran ever since I've read The Blood of Flowers and Persepolis and I've heard of Reading Lolita before, so thank you for this great review. I did wonder about the title and now it makes perfect sense: literature as escapism from grim reality. I think we don't appreciate it so much living in Europe or America where reality isn't that grim, despite what we think.

    And thank you for this last quote, it's perfect. As an immigrant, a "hybryd" no longer feeling Polish but never fully becoming English I appreciate importance of keeping memories alive because whether we want it or not, they define who we are.

    (okay, this last paragraph may not be very relevant but that's what I thought when I read the quote)

    Perfect choice of music!

  5. Many thanks for your kind comments. I agree with you, Polly, that many times people in the West take certain rights and liberties for granted until they lose them, or are in danger of losing them. Then, they realise.

    By the way, and off topic, if you're in London and want to visit an excellent photography exhibition, there will be one opening tonight at the Rich Mix and until 27th February. It's called 'Cuban Stories'. I'm planning to interview the three photographers, Claire Boobbyer, Angel Gil and Helena Smith tonight and post our conversation next week. In the meantime, if you're visiting the British capital, this is an opportunity not to be missed.


    Greetings from London.

  6. 1984 is one of my top favourite books of all time.

    I loved it then and I love it now.

    By the way every tarot card came out the same for you and your family 'wonderful life'.


  7. Thanks for this recommendation! I'll make sure I don't miss that exhibition.

  8. I wish I were there my friend. I would love to see that exhibit. I look forward to your interviews and perspectives. I am also picking up Nafisi's book.

  9. Yes, 1984 is still powerful despite being dated. SPOILER ALERT: Winston’s “Do it to Julia!” bothered me much more than the predicted submission. I kept expecting him to fight back. One of the best books every written and the movie was superb too.

    Excellent review of Reading Lolita in Tehran – how fascinating to combine politics and literature. I like your sum of “a novel stands for escapism.” Her final words are stunning. I love Chopin too.

  10. "Reading Lolita.." maybe the best title in quite a while. Is not the worst loss the one of the soul, of our own volition, so that we become what the fascist wants?
    Fairy tales release the unconscious, maybe leading us to courage in the real world..
    This book is next, for me..thank you.

  11. Hello London, I will pass on your review to a friend in London who has just finished writing a novel set in Iran just after the overthrow of the Shah.
    The analysis and comparison of politics à la Castro and Khomeini was very interesting, and the opening quote from 1984 chilling. Why is it that their brand of mind control is so successful? That the dissemination of hate finds such fertile ground? Why are the critical thinkers so outnumbered? I'd be interested to hear what you might have to say about this.

    Excellent and articulate, as always.

  12. Very interesting review, as usual. I've often walked past "Reading Lolita" in bookstores but have never picked it up for some reason. Now you have prompted me to do so. Gracias, Cubano.

  13. Very interesting review, and clearly a fascinating book. I'll look out for it.

    I would love to have the chance to talk with you some day about your experiences in Cuba, and your decision to leave...

  14. Cuban, for the first time ever, after reading one of your posts, I am stumped and at a loss for words. But let me just say this: Your review was stellar, your linking the events in Iran and in the book with what is now happening in Haiti is no passing thing, and I am honestly speechless at this review of a book I so enjoyed reading, maybe because I am like Mitra, and I derive a certain pleasure from reading about such pain within the context of so-called literature. But no, that is not the right thinking. For me, the right thinking is that when we read about someone else's pain in a novel, and we experience a certain joy, it is because we have found a mythical someone that we can connect with, someone who has suffered a similar pain or experienced a similar emotion to one we have suffered or experienced before. And besides that, I too can associate with the abrupt and unexpected invasion of memories. Can't we all?

    A beautiful and warming post, Cuban!


  15. "a novel stands for escapism."
    You spoke about that from the perspective of a reader. It applies equally well to the writer. The phenomenon of "escaping" into the lives of characters is peculiar in so many ways. It could be called a psychological deficiency, even pathology. Both the reader and the writer are drawn into worlds which, though they sometimes elicit joy, they also draw one into sadness and pain. Yet -- here's the surprising part -- we love to go there. It makes me think that, just as there is with music, there is something about the written word that leaps across cognitive filters to a primal part of the psyche. By the way, my post this Saturday is about music's role in that.

  16. Many thanks for your wonderful comments. I agree with you both, Nevine and Judith. In fact, I think that readers and writers are the most masochist of the spectators/executioners genre. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  17. Well, I came back to add Part II of my comment, but see you have already read my Part I. I'll add it anyway. It's not the written word that helps us escape. It's the story telling which was helping people escape through oral telling well before anyone could write.

  18. Another excellent review, Mr. Cuban. The Chopin takes me back to my old piano playing days.

  19. "Reading Lolita" was the first book I read when I joined my book club. It was a great read and sparked a lively discussion. We all tried to imagine living in a world so oppressive that you wouldn't be allowed to meet in order to discuss literature. We couldn't of course.

    Your selection of Chopin's "ripples" is very fitting.

  20. Your mind is amazing CiL. To pair up Chopin
    with a book review and this book in particular
    makes me want to get inside your mind.

    I must read this novel, I have walked past
    it many times, however now this will be the
    next book I pick up. By giving snippets of
    the prose found within you have made me
    want to read this novel as soon as possible!

  21. Many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.



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