Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading this book ended up being a somewhat mixed experience. I read the book twice, once in February or so and once last week. I don't really know why I picked it up again, I guess somehow "I wasn't done with the book" yet. This is probably also why I didn't manage to write a review after the first time. I started writing a review, but never finished it. This review you are reading now, uses parts of the original, half-finished one, but they have all been rewritten and added to.

When I finished the book the first time, I somehow couldn't get to grips with it. I finished it at the time, but I also felt that maybe it just wasn't the right time to read it. You know, how sometimes you are not enjoying a book, but you feel that you would probably like it better if you read it at some other time when your mood is different or you have less other things on your mind? That's how I felt when I first read Reading Lolita. I think it had something to do with not having time to read in larger sittings. For most of the book I only had time for a few pages at a time. I thoroughly enjoyed the few parts I managed to read in one larger sitting.

For me the weakest part of the book was the first part, both times I read the book. The first time I started the book, I read the first part (about 80 pages in my edition) in short stretches, a chapter at a time. This obviously didn't work, because I didn't get into the story. Even the second time around, being already familiar with the story, for me the first chapter was the weakest part of the book, it was too much all over the place. Only when I read a larger part in one sitting, did I like the book. For example, the first time I read the book I read the second part in one sitting and loved it. This second part ended up being my favorite part of the book, both times around.

As you can probably already guess, I am not one of those people who is gushing over Reading Lolita in Tehran. In fact, I have mixed feelings about the book. That is why this review might come across as a bit unstructured. I enjoyed the book, the first time probably more so than the second, but more on a rational level than an emotional level. If that makes sense. Rationally, I can definitely agree with all the praise that this is indeed a good book, one that gives a very good picture of life in contemporary Iran. I very much liked Nafisi's way with words, especially in portraying a person or showing a situation. Also, in the writing I could feel that Nafisi cares about the people she writes about. I actually enjoyed reading the book, more so the first time than the second time around.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four parts, each part centered around an author and one or a few of his/her works, Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Henry James, and Jane Austen. I haven't read any of the books and authors that form the core of the book, except for some of Jane Austen's work, but not being familiar with them didn't really hinder me. Though I think it does add to the experience of Reading Lolita in Tehran if you are familiar with the authors and books discussed. And it does make me for one more inclined to pick up works from the authors discussed when I will come across them.

Each part of the book also covers a central theme or period in Azar Nafisi's own life branching out to cover the stories of the seven female students that Nafisi chooses for a special literature class she teaches every Thursday at her house. One of my problems with the book is that I had a problem keeping most of the girls in the reading class and their histories separate. Somehow they blended into each other in a way, even though their stories and backgrounds were very different. The one that stood out most and became the most individual to me, was Yassi.

Something that started to bug me the second time around, was the question: "If this is a memoir, then how much of it is true and how much of it is made up?" The Author's Note at the beginning of the book says:

Aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed mainly to protect individuals, not just from the eye of the censor but also from those who read such narratives to discover who's who and who did what to whom[...]. The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful, but I have made every effort to protect friends and students, baptizing them with new names and disguising them perhaps even from themselves, changing and interchanging facts of their lives so that their secrets are safe.

I am perfectly okay with changing things to keep people's identities safe, no problem with that at all. The phrase that bothers me more, is "The facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful", especially because in the story Nafisi mentions several times that her memory is not that great, implying there may be things she doesn't remember correctly. After coming across similar remarks a few times, I started thinking to what extent this is still a memoir and to what extent is it no longer. And if not, what is it then? Fiction? Semi-fiction? (Did I just invent a new word and genre?) How much of the book is based on real events and how do we know that? Don't get me wrong, I do not intend to discredit Nafisi or the book. It just got me thinking.

I think that a review written after the first time I read the book, would have been a lot more enthusiastic about Reading Lolita than the one you are reading now. I think that the first time around, despite my difficulties keeping the characters apart, I felt more strongly about the people in the book. Maybe, I shouldn't have read the book a second time, I don't know.

Still, despite this less than glowing review and the questions the book raised with me, I do recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran. I think the problems I have with it are more connected to me than to the book itself. It is a good book, well written, informative, giving a good picture of life in Iran (or at least of the intelligentsia in Tehran), though it needs time to get going. I have the feeling that it is also one of those books you need to take time for, it is best read in larger sessions I think (Sunday afternoons on the porch maybe or rainy days). For me, it is not one of those books you take with you to read in a few stolen minutes while waiting somewhere.

Crossposted at The Armenian Odar Reads.

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