Each year, I write a list of “Books that Changed my Life.” It is mid-June in 2013 and I have read a meager total of seven books. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi is the first book to make the list this year.
Nafisi tells the story of her girls, former students whom she recruited into a secret book club. They read forbidden books: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, among a host of others. Each Thursday, they would sit in her living room and discuss the texts, and any true lover of fiction knows that a discussion of texts always becomes a discussion of the personal. This is the wonder of reading: the words on the page come alive and become the defining dialogue of one’s own life.
I don’t know how to talk about Nafisi’s book detachedly or objectively. My Muslim friends might object to many of her opinions. I suppose the storytelling is a little imbalanced: too tainted by cynicism, perhaps a little too American. But Nafisi makes no effort to excuse or justify her idiosyncrasies; if her intellectual convictions are flawed, she is aware of it, and does not pretend otherwise. Arguably all narrators are unreliable, after all.
Beyond these details is an eternal love for the novel. Perhaps it is because these works are forbidden that they take on such new meaning; Nafisi says her students read Nabokov with more hunger than she ever did in her youth.
I feel strongly for this book precisely because I find personal parallels in it: my impractical, irrelevant love for fiction, the push and pull between love for country and despair for its leaders, the politicization of personal faith, and life with my own girls. I do not know if other readers would feel the same.
It was exactly Islam as a political entity that I rejected. I told him about my grandmother, who was the most devout Muslim I had ever known, even more than you, Mr. Bahri, and still she shunned politics. She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of her sacred relationship with God, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols. Where do your loyalties lie, Mr. Bahri, with Islam or the state?
Nafisi weaves through these threads seamlessly. She is a reader consumed by her own predicaments, and her books become a tool for her to articulate her own suffering: Humbert Humbert, like the Islamic Republic, is an oppressive force trying to fashion Lolita after his own idea, renaming her, raping her and robbing her of her autonomy. Humbert Humbert breaks Dolores as the Revolution breaks Iran. Their understanding of these works of fiction is central to their understanding of their own lives. And by being able to retreat into “the secret place” where the imagination roams free, they are able to preserve their sense of self in a country that has since outlawed the liberties that formerly distinguished them from a sea of others. Perhaps that’s it: fiction is more important where it seems least relevant.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is not only a highly personal account of life in a war-torn country, nor simply a love letter to literature; its power, I think, lies in its ability to raise questions, about loyalty to God and country most of all.
Every revolution promises change, but where are those nations now whose revolutions once triumphed–France, Russia, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Iran and ourselves? Are our people living better lives today than under the tyrants we once denounced, or have former revolutionaries become the new tyrants? Marx believed that there could be no bloodless revolution, but does any bloody revolution ever truly succeed? We want to bring down the status quo, but rarely do nations ever stop to consider the sustainability of the alternative. All of us citizens whose countries have been shaped by the shedding of blood could never really tell what would come after. All of us are still enduring the changes, or lack thereof, brought about by this sacrifice.
Is one ever justified in leaving one’s homeland for a “better life” abroad? How can one live in a country with a broken system without striking a truce with it? And where does one draw the line between necessary compromise and a loss of integrity?
I want to stay because I love this country, he told me. We should stay as a form of resistance, to show that we are not out-maneuvered. Our very presence is a thorn in their side. Where else in the world, he asked me, would a talk on Madame Bovary draw such crowds and nearly lead to a riot? We can’t give up and leave; we are needed here. I love this country, he repeated. Did I not love this country? I asked myself.
These are not easy to confront, and Nafisi shares her naked anguish in her book, of her search and the solutions she has settled for. It feels redundant sometimes, as though she were repeating whole sentences in different parts of the book, like an old lady telling the same story over and over, forgetting that she had just told you the exact same thing five minutes earlier. Nevertheless, her account is intelligently observed, moving and enchanting, and the questions she asks echo long after one has turned the last page.