The sub-title of Reading Lolita in Tehran is A Memoir in Books, and that is just what it is! The book was first published in 2003 and is a memoir by the author Azar Nafisi about life in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which now seems to have great resonance in light of the current Arab Spring. Nafisi recounts how every Thursday morning for two years she taught Western fiction to a group of students secretly within her home, including classics by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen, but the book that Nafisi references mostly is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita which she uses as a metaphor for life in Tehran. For the reader, having a prior knowledge of the classics that feature in Reading Lolita in Tehran certainly helps to gain an understanding of the parallels drawn between literature and life.
The effect of revolution is the main theme that runs throughout, with Nafisi professing that the people of Iran were complicit in the fall of the existing government without giving any thought as to what would follow. They “were only demanding destruction of the old, without much thought to the consequences” (p.102).
Literature became a vital part of the lives of the women who came together as they risked everything by removing their veils, taking off their outer garments, and discussing novels that told of worlds totally different to theirs. Once free of the constraints of dress they also offloaded pent up feelings of despair and anger, and their stories became intertwined with those of the characters in the books they were discussing. The courage of the women and the intelligence of Nafisi’s writing are evident throughout, but the book came into its own when she was describing her personal experiences during the revolution, rather than through the analysis of the novels. There are some fascinating insights into what life was like for women including things that we take for granted in the Western world – one being the fact that they could not eat apples or ice cream in public because it would be sexually arousing to men!
Whilst Reading Lolita in Tehran is a fascinating representation of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature, the characters were hard to engage with and the reader was kept at an emotional distance. However, it must be remembered that this is not a novel but a true depiction of what was happening under a regime that stifled artistic expression. A book that once again divided members of the Reading Group that I belong to, with views ranging from ‘Wow’, and ‘Amazing’ to ‘Interesting but disappointing’.