Reading Lolita in Tehran is described on the cover as a memoir in books. For me it was also a lesson in the history of Iran. If nothing else, the reader gets a true account of the Iranian Revolution, life under fundamentalist Islamic rule, and attitudes toward Western life, no propaganda, no spin. However, along with this political story, there are nuggets of literary critique that speak to the quality of Nafisi as a teacher.
Very early on Nafisi dismisses 1984 and instead cites Lolita as the novel most relevant to the plight of the Iranian woman. Her rationale is that an individual’s self-image is indistinguishable from the government’s idea of the individual’s place in a moral Islamic society. However, I can’t help think of Orwell’s classic: the educational system inundated with propaganda; Revolutionary Guard patrols control action and, it is hoped, thoughts; dissidents are periodically punished publicly to intimidate others; selectively positive news of a war used to unite citizens, when the reality is a conflict at a stalemate. The most eerie connection to 1984 is the description of what happens when political prisoners were executed.
The victims of this mass execution were murdered twice, the second time by the silence and anonymity surrounding their executions, which robbed them of a meaningful and acknowledged death and thus, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, set a seal on the fact that they had never really existed.
Other reoccuring themes that a high school student could write a five-paragraph essay about are dreams and irrelevance. Here are some observations I made while reading:
- There is little reference to Iranian or any Asian literature. I’m guessing that this has to do with danger of writing anything contradictory to the government, so there weren’t really any Iranian authors Nafisi felt worth discussing.
- There is little reference to her husband. The book is mostly about Iranian women, but several men do appear prominently. Yet, I almost forgot she was married.
- During the war with Hussein, Iraq is vilified as an ally of West. I’m not sure what the Iranian opinion was of the US invading Iraq, but I bet it wasn’t too positive.
I probably did more thinking while reading this book than any other.