All things counter, original, spare and strange in Khujand, Tajikistan

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

As the Uzbekistan trip came to an close, Corrie and I booked a flight from Urgench, on the western side of the country, back to Tashkent, which is only a few hours from Khujand. On this flight I finished the book I’d brought along for the trip: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Reading Lolita is Ms. Nafisi’s memoir of her life as a woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran, told through the lens of the novels she studied with a select group of students in her home. Nafisi was a free-thinking literature professor who survived the Islamic revolution, the subsequent upheaval, and the war with Iraq and managed to continue teaching about the novels she loved.

Memoirists face the challenge of taking the self as subject without appearing self-absorbed. The guiding conceit of Reading Lolita–life told by means of literature–only partly solves this problem. The voice of the book tends to be a bit too self-interested, inwardness without the stylistic flair needed to pull it off.

But where Reading Lolita shines is in Nafisi’s passionate advocacy for the importance of fiction–even in the face of a world-shattering revolution, oppression and pervasive censorship. Why literature, of all things? Doesn’t the world need freedom, prosperity, security and peace far more than novels?

In Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons (or The Possessed, depending on translation), one of the characters is drummed out of a revolutionary organization for daring to claim that Pushkin’s poetry might be more important than boots. Ms. Nafisi herself was a revolutionary in the Marxist mode, versed in communism’s demand that literature make itself useful to the class struggle. But she never bought it. Faced with the choice, one imagines she might–however cold her feet–choose Pushkin  over boots. Would you?

How can we defend the importance of something that is by definition not useful? One could, and Ms. Nafisi does, argue for the novel’s usefulness in inculcating empathy, encouraging freedom of thought and expanding one’s sense of the world. But ultimately Reading Lolita is more of a love letter than a polemic. Ms. Nafisi and her students continue studying Nabokov, James and Fitzgerald out of delight, not necessity. In a wonderful passage they take turns defining one of Nabokov’s neologisms, an imaginary letter called “upsilandia.” Defining an imaginary word? While their country remained in the grasp of a repressive and chauvinistic regime? How could they?

As I write, Egypt is boiling over with protests, Tunisia’s president has fled, Southern Sudan comes closer to independence, even as protesters in Khartoum challenge the North Sudanese regime. Arab North Africa is changing fast, a change that may soon echo across the Muslim world. Is this really the time to be talking about fiction?

Is there ever a time? The world is always somewhere coming to an end. But never has the need to create, or appreciate creation, ceased. Violence, poverty and oppression interrupt literature, but never eradicate it. Where humanity flourishes, it creates. Literature should need no defense, because it is a constant of fully expressed life. But it always needs a defense because life is always under attack.

So perhaps (perhaps) boots should precede Pushkin. But it’s a false dilemma. If the boot-makers come from this part of the world
(i.e. Tajikistan), they can probably recite Pushkin, plus Rudaki and Firdausi, as they work. You can’t stop it, and Reading Lolita in Tehran is valuable as a testimony that delight is human.


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