This past couple of days happened to be UPCAT weekend, and I had the good fortune of staying home and sleeping for most of it. Perhaps, for reasons I outlined in my previous post
, I also am almost through with Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," a book about a person whose life has been touched by fiction perhaps much more so than I could imagine.
Nafisi writes about her experiences in Iran as the totalitarian regime gains power and becomes increasingly oppressive towards women. After teaching literature for different universities in Tehran, she picks seven of her students to come visit her at her home every Thursday to talk about forbidden Western books. Their little book club becomes a place not only where they could "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color," but where, for several hours, they could escape reality. This escape relates not only to the government intervention in their lives, but also to each woman's innermost fears, insecurities, and emotional scars.
In the first page of the book, Nafisi repeats a warning to her students, "Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth."
And yet she proceeds through an erudite discussion of some of the canons of Western literature, Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby", Austen's "Pride and Prejudice", James's "Daisy Miller", and of course, Nabokov's "Lolita", all of which are framed against the backdrop of Tehran during the Islamic revolution. Or it might be just as accurate to describe the book as her writing about being a woman of letters in a country that has just transformed itself into a dangerous place for someone like that, using fiction to amplify the intimacy of her experiences to her readers.
It works both ways. Part of the joy of reading the book is the perspective she gives on her discussion of Lolita and the other books. She makes careful note, once again, of how the novel exists in a whole other world:
A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empthaize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.
She is, however, able to draw similarities to relate to her personal circumstances, adding a depth that makes one want to pick up the books again to see what we had missed.
(Now I need to call up my friend who'd had my copy of Lolita since December. I hope she hasn't lost it.)
And then there's the story of Nafisi and her girls. They relate to the "desperate truth of Lolita's story" because they face a desperate truth everyday. Upon her return to Iran, she finds a country willing to accept only a narrow morality. She joins ultimately fruitless protests against requirements for women to wear veils in public, seeing this as a threat to her individuality as a women. Her girls go through the same ordeals, such as humiliating virginity tests and living their public lives devoid of some of the simplest joys, such as holding hands with another man.
But more than these shared experiences, it is the act of reading and discussing the literature that brings the women together. It is this "sensual experience of another world" that allows the women to imagine, to breathe, to be able to survive the insanity the world throws at them, and to display their remarkable strength. And I guess this is why, despite all of the terrible things they have to go through, the book is inspiring and never depressing, hopeful and never desperate.