The Republic of Imagination: A Case For Fiction by Azar Nafisi, book review: Turning the west back on to reading

Passionate polemic argues for the value of literature to be restored

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The Independent Culture

Read. Read deeply. Read as if your life depended on it: identity and citizenship are at stake. This is the message of Azar Nafisi's passionate polemic. Should we need this reminder? No, but we do. The trends Nafisi detects in America are equally evident in Britain.

In 2003, Nafisi, self-exiled from her homeland, published her electrifying memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Iran's theocracy had anathematised America as "the Great Satan". An outspoken teacher of American literature, Nafisi had been expelled from her university post. Her home became a quietist revolutionary cell, in which selected women students, each lovingly characterised in Reading Lolita, dared to debate outlawed literature.

The Western chattering classes fell in love with Nafisi's beautiful memoir. She'd taught Lolita as a door to inner freedom, an allegory of "the confiscation of one individual's life by another". Through reading together, Nafisi's students honed their power to affirm their value against the totalitarian state.

There was a green gate at Allameh Tabataba'i University in Tehran, forbidden to women students. Beside the gate, a "small opening with a curtain hanging from it" admitted females to a "dark room to be inspected". Coat colour, scarf-thickness, shoe-style, bag-contents– all were subject to official Imprimatur. Nafisi's reading group found a third way to a clandestine republic.

In 1997, Nafisi left Iran for America, taking citizenship in 2008. What she encountered was at once liberating and disquieting. The Republic of Imagination admonishes a consumerist Western culture that takes its freedoms for granted, devaluing art, music, literature. Its education system prioritises test-taking, failing to furnish students with the individuality to detect and resist "lies, illusions and fantasies".

Are we in the West slavishly losing our minds? Do we tweet too much and question too little? Traversing America for book-signings, Nafisi wonders where on earth her home is now. Is it Iran or America or some nonmaterial space where minds meet, listen, debate, dream? An Iranian-born guy in Seattle shrugs: "These people are different from us. They don't care about books." How strange, Nafisi thinks, if American literature belongs more to "the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran" than to America.

The texts Nafisi asks us to reread are Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Here Nafisi locates the wisdom of the marginalised, the vagabond, the "freak": those who dare to think against norms.

The Republic of Imagination offers no new reading theory. Its literary-critical principles hark back to the liberal humanism in Western universities before postmodernism obscured debate with abstruse jargon. Nafisi's heartwarming polemic is most successful when her story-telling techniques mirror those of Reading Lolita. The account of Huckleberry Finn is framed by an elegiac commemoration of Nafisi's oldest friend, Farah, and their lifetime of conversation. In mortal danger, Farah escaped from revolutionary Iran where her husband was executed: the pity and terror of her story convinces us of the necessity for shared truthful witness. Huck's journey from false "civilisation" and Farah's exile are braided.

Playful, sombre and tender, Nafisi's character-vignettes persuade us that reading nourishes empathy and friendship, opening the forbidden path through the green gate.

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