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

Heartwarming and sombre: Azar Nafisi makes the case for cherishing literature
Heartwarming and sombre: Azar Nafisi makes the case for cherishing literature

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in