This is some elegant, crafted writing. This is a woman I would like to meet and have coffee with, while listening to her spin her stories around my heart and mind for hours on end. Azar Nafisi is an Iranian writer and professor, though I am curious which hat she would choose first. My personal view to the matter is that there is a budding writer in disguise inside every serial reader and Mrs. Nafisi is but among the best examples of how love for books met teaching and then, naturally, led to beautifully mastering the written words.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is written as a memoir that reflects upon the teaching years in the university of Tehran between the revolution of 1978-1981 and the following years, until 1997. The author is sacked because she refuses to wear the veil and starts teaching literature to her secret book club, right before the moment of her emigration to USA.
All four chapters of the book - Lolita, Gastby, James, Austen- are but a pretext to share a mutual interest in reading and books, but, most of all, to reflect upon how history, religion, oppression, and totalitarian mindsets touch the very lives of the Iranian people. Students Mahshid, Yassi, Mitra, Nassrin, Azin, Sanaz and Manna help her read between the lines of such incredible stories and discuss the true colors of a villain versus a hero and the thin line between the very two antagonistic concepts. According to the author, villains can easily be blinded by their own lack of empathy towards different manifestations of oppression and dreams we are fed while looking through another's eye. I particularly like how she chooses to describe Nabokov's villain:
"Humbert was a villain," she writes, "because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most."
Freedom comes at some very high price and Nafisi has to either follow the rules of a regime she does not identify with or flee the profession and country that she loves, taking turns in playing the hero and the villain.
I liked the story for the way history and reality became one narrative in the book and how people took turns at identifying with or disapproving of all characters, putting them and their choices to test and trial, in an attempt to verbalize their fears and values. It is authentic and vibrant in its invitation to enter the two worlds that inhabit the book: that of university life under the political regime of the time and into the imaginative realm of such acclaimed writers as Austen, Nabokov, Scott Fitzgerald or James. Also, the idea of shared intimacy among members of the book club who are basically nothing but strangers of the same tastes, is extremely attractive to me. It requires a certain abandonment of the self in search of mirroring otherness through empathy. The seven women of the club enter a magical world revealing their hidden beauty to the eyes of such fortunate authors, whose books come to life in their hands. The reader in the circle and outside, holding this very book, is required to be familiar with the works of the four authors and indulge himself/herself into some criticism of their worlds that live parallel existences beyond geographical boundaries. The personal lives of the seven women find echoes in the books and weave around the core idea idea in the story: we are the choices we make. Reading Lolita in Tehran is the kind of book that wraps the idea of change/choice into the literary foil of an excellent story.
I have been trying a new kind of artistic cocktail lately -mixing books with chocolate flavors and music or associating movies and the feelings they ignite with certain ideas. The reading of this book reminds me of my American days when I would spent my quiet afternoons listening to Tom Waits. Or spending Thursdays at The Flicks, always watching Indies, eating Baked Brie and French Bread at Rick's Cafe. I know, of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I walked into his...