Like Sartrapi’s The Complete Persepolis, this memoir does an extraordinary job describing life during the turbulent times of Iran’s revolution and subsequent war with Iraq. It’s well-written and compelling, delivering a deep, emotionally intelligent analysis of fundamentalist suppression. The usurpers and book banners of the day are portrayed with humanity, as deeply religious yet rational people honestly trying to argue their case and improve their world. I have to put my literature geek hat on in order to properly praise my favorite aspect of this book: Nafisi’s mastery of telling a true story through the lens of fictional classics. Her book is divided into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, each focused ostensibly on her secret class’s discussion of the books and authors in question. Yet she deftly expands each circle to tell the story of the revolution using the very themes of the book she’s teaching.
I. Lolita: Nafisi describes the rights women and secularists were deprived under the regime, as Dolores was deprived of a happy, normal childhood by the book’s villain. She also relates the regime’s crushing body of rules to Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, a surreal dystopia about a man imprisoned by self-deluding jailers forcing him to follow nonsensical rituals in order to participate in his own execution.
II. The Great Gatsby: A peculiar word that crops up constantly in the regime’s rhetoric is the decadence that led to the West’s “demise.” Obviously Jay Gatsby is a perfect embodiment of this noun, yet Nafisi peels back this layer to tell the book’s tragic story of love and sacrifice and challenge the reader’s reactive judgement of the antihero.
III. Henry James: I knew nothing about this man. Injured in the Civil War, this American spent most of his life in England as an apolitical expat. The onset of World War I and his home country’s reticence to intervene galvanized his sense of purpose. He became a British citizen, ruthlessly criticized the US’s isolationism, and wrote essays about the war that, in his mind, was tearing down the very fabric of civilization. During this section of the memoir Nafisi describes more of the history, facts & figures about the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, treating it with a James or Whitman style despair.
IV. Jane Austen: I’ll admit, as a male, this was the one section I faltered on. As in Austen’s novels, Nafisi talks about her female students’ struggles with suitors and love affairs. The right to pursue happiness and choose one’s own partner is touted as the great moral goal of a democracy. The regime’s many sex and marriage related regulations remind us that their ultimate aim, via oblique means, was the suppression of free thought, expression, and identity.
This is a great book to learn more about modern Iran’s foundation, but it will also challenge your concepts of religion, power, sex, and expression.