Young Iranians spilled onto Tehran’s streets on June 15, one day after the election of Hassan Rowhani as president, not in protest against any perceived rigging of the vote, but to let Iran’s unelected leaders know what was expected of this moderate cleric.
The scene was quite different from what we saw in Iran in 2009, though both incidents are continuations of – perhaps reactions to – the Islamic revolution in which students rose up, the shah was deposed and theocracy installed.
Although the leaders of 2009’s Green Movement were religious men, many of whom were on the front lines in 1979, the people on the street and in the squares four years ago were young (the face of that countrywide protest, Neda Agha-Soltan, was only 26 when she was killed). These were children of the revolution. They were, in Sahar Delijani’s fictional telling, Children of the Jacaranda Tree.
At a reunion of sorts in Tehran in 2010, these children, who are cousins and friends, reminisce about the campaign to overturn the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
“Sara’s face lights up. ‘I remember wearing something green every day, and I didn’t even like green! But during the elections, it became my favourite colour. It still is.’
“‘Mine too,’ says Elnaz. ‘There were so many people we were like a sea of green.’”
They recall their beatings. They recall the deception they felt afterwards.
“‘What happened before the elections was that they fooled us by opening up to us like that, and we fell for it,’ Dante says, not looking at anyone in particular. ‘They just wanted us to come out so they could identify us and see how many we were. It was only a trap. Once we came out of our houses, wearing our green shirts and scarves and waving banners around, it was more than easy to beat us into pieces. I still can’t believe we trusted them. We, of all people, should not have fallen for that sudden liberated air they made us think we were breathing.’”
Liberation and its antithesis, imprisonment, are the major themes of this autobiographical, problematic debut novel, which follows one extended family and several of their close friends between 1983 and 2011. Every scene, every set piece, can be seen through either of these prisms, or both, as with the discussion about the fresh air that was the Green Movement and the suffocation that followed.
The smothering starts on the very first page of the novel, when Azar finds herself blindfolded in the back of a van shuttling to a hospital to give birth. Azar is an inmate of the notorious Evin Prison outside Tehran, one of thousands held there on trumped-up allegations of crimes against the regime or Islam. Thousands more are jailed on no charges at all.
Lying in bed, having delivered her daughter Neda, Azar thinks of the revolution she had been part of, that fleeting moment when she too filled her lungs with the air of liberty. They’d brought down a king once thought untouchable, but something had gone wrong and “the men with the severe faces and mouths full of rage and relentlessness and God … had taken over the country, claiming to be the deliverers of righteous words and holy laws”.
What followed the overthrow of the shah was the Iran-Iraq War, and much of the action in Children of the Jacaranda Tree takes place during that decade of war. “Everyone carried their fear with them, like a chain,” we are told, and it wasn’t just fear of the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards – it was fear of becoming cannon fodder and ending up among the 4,000 to 5,000 buried in Khavaran cemetery.
In those years, almost any activity could be considered subversive: not wearing one’s headscarf properly, not growing a beard, being caught outside one’s home after curfew, having a relationship with someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage. (The author seems intent to show how abominable it is that such activities are “crimes” in Iran, and while that may certainly have been and still be the case, these are crimes in other countries as well. That Delijani is, as an assimilated Italian immigrant, writing from a western perspective can, to some, be problematic.)
As a prison narrative, Children of the Jacaranda Tree is told mostly from outside the walls of Evin, the author’s purpose being to show the punishing conditions of life for many Iranians. One’s country, one’s city, one’s home, one’s room, one’s self, one’s thoughts: any and all can form four walls.
One character, Maryam, whose husband is killed in prison in the 1980s, never discloses to her daughter Sheida the circumstances of his death. She lies by telling Sheida that cancer claimed her father. Maryam’s desire to free her daughter from the perceived shame of having a father die in Evin sentences the two of them to a lifetime of miscommunication.
Azar, however, is free with her stories. The tales she tells Neda are fun at first but turn darker as the child grows older and is able to comprehend more. They are birth chronicles turned prison narratives and thus parallel the progression of events in 1979 and 2009.
Despite the prison that Iran is, Azar remains. Neda, however, moves to Turin. For most of her time in Italy she has lived a life detached from events in Iran. But after 2009 she makes baby steps to reconnect with her land of birth and starts to frequent a cafe popular with Iranian expatriates. She meets a man named Reza, a political refugee who was among the Green Movement protesters and whose father was a Revolutionary Guard who’d renounced his prison activities. It’s a powerful scene of confession yet it’s shorn of its strength when we are told the father was the man who’d imprisoned Neda’s mother. Authors create such coincidences all the time; the trick is to have them seem like coincidence and not contrivance.
“‘Let’s take a walk, huh? We both need some fresh air,’” Reza says to Neda.
And the freedom-imprisonment dichotomy returns. What is Delijani saying? That only in the West, outside Iran, can people breathe freely? That the Revolutionary Guard are capable of change?
Delijani’s trope works until these last few pages. Here, when this torturer is named, it’s as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the tale. It’s a false move. And it could be forgiven were there not so many others in the novel. Some are clumsy word choices and vague language. I counted three uses of “shapeless”, two times needlessly attached to synonyms “splotch” and “blob”, neither of which added anything to my understanding of what they are modifying. A character must “buck herself up”. Water in a gutter “gags”. Really?
The larger fault is structural, however. Azar’s story, which begins the novel, is ignored until near the end. In between are other tales with characters dropping in and out of the storyline. Dante, for example, is introduced on page 123 of 278; and on 161, we meet two others, the overwrought Maryam and worrisome Sheida. The great Russian novelists could get away with this, but when some of Delijani’s chapters begin with pronouns and not proper names, it’s understandable that a reader will be confused. It was only after reading the book jacket that I figured out the relationships among some of the major characters.
After Children of the Jacaranda Tree, I read The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer. It, too, is a narrative of prison, the real one with concrete floors and steel bars and bad food and guards who mete out mental and physical torture, and the other real one, of those who remain outside prison, locked in their grief and immured by their circumstances. The reason Septembers works where Jacaranda doesn’t is depth. Sofer limits her tale to a family of three, allowing her to explore what they see, how they feel, with nuance and detail. Delijani gets inside her many characters’ heads by having them ask a lot of questions. It’s suffocating, but perhaps that’s intentional. But I didn’t know Tehran, or Iran; I hardly know the characters or their motivations.
I’m loath to ascribe these faults to the autobiographical nature of the book because there are autobiographical details in any work of fiction, but the acknowledgements make it clear just how closely the novel adheres to the story of Delijani’s family’s life. I suspect that this is one reason Delijani only skims the surface. The jacaranda is a beautiful tree with fragrant purple flowers. Children of the Jacaranda Tree is no different: mostly striking, intensely aromatic. But Delijani needed to rely less on the perfume, dig deeper to find the roots of her story and water those tendrils.
Raymond Beauchemin is a former deputy foreign editor of The -National and the author of the novel Everything I Own.