Book: Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani (NEW Summer 2013)
This is a prison story, a story of generations repressed and rebelling and being punished both by the regime and by their own internal struggles. It is the story of parents and children and family secrets. It is the kind of story that can only be told by witnesses–or those to whom the witnesses first tell their stories.
Although Children of the Jacaranda Tree is fiction, it is based on real lives. Sahar Delijani was born in Evin Prison in Tehran, just like Neda in the novel. The beginning of the novel is one of the most hypnotic I have ever read. A woman is going into labor and her captors take advantage of her weakened state to interrogate her. Then the callous “Sisters” and “Brothers” of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, march her up and down stairs from one medical facility to another. Finally we experience every sensation as she gives birth in the midst of fear and the doubt that she will ever see her child.
Later, we meet the other women in her cell who are rejuvenated by having an infant in their midst. Some of them are mothers who have had to leave their children, sometimes abruptly without plans for someone to care for them and sometimes more fortunately with relatives. We meet other prisoners and see their fate, and other children of prisoners and follow them into adulthood. The unrelenting pain–physical and emotional– of these opening chapters is not easy to read, but is compelling and true.
These portions of the book that take place in the Evin Prison in 1983 to 1988 remind me of the books of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn’s books pried open the eyes of people inside as well as outside of Russia as to what had transpired during the Stalin regime. Since Children of the Jacaranda Tree tells about an on-going situation–the book also touches on the 2009 elections and revolts–we don’t yet know the outcome of the decades-long struggle. Will more awareness help move the Iranian people toward a more just government?
The point of the novel is about internal suffering. How can families communicate and accommodate the repression and the resistance. From childhood, they must keep secrets. Children are warned never to tell anyone where their parents are. Sheida’s mother refuses to talk about her missing father. She says he died of cancer, but Sheida suspects this is not true. The secret weighs like a physical ill. “The air around her mother was heavy with paralysis, with internal breaking, like a marble surrendered to the blows of a hammer.”
At times the people in the novel puzzle over how they should react to current events. Their parents fought against the Shah and then fought and lost their battles against the mullahs who throttled the people’s freedom. Now each election brings new hope and more battles. A child of the 1983 revolution watches the 2009 revolution on T.V.
The images on the screen fill Sheida with anxiety every time she sees them, as though she is late for something, or left behind, excluded. She is envious of the burst of energy in that young crowd, of the way it is all happening without her, of the way her place in that tide of history is unoccupied.
Since the mission of A Traveler’s Library is to present books with a strong sense of place, I must confess I have stretched a point here. This is not a particularly helpful book for people who want to see Iran as a landscape with tourist attractions. It is a road map instead of the social and political life of the country. However, when Delijani does describe the surroundings, it is with a sharp eye. But the cultural differences between a free country and a repressed country are made clear.
Neda realizes how different her life is in Italy.
Words are easier to utter, lighter. Gestures become less inhibited, glances less instinctually cautious, feelings less grueling, less intertwined with guilt and blame and revenge and redemption of an entire nation. Every word is no longer an allegory, of either something higher and nobler or something vile and wretched; every action is no longer a symbol of defiance or conformism, every silence an opportunity to understand to which side one belonged, and every struggle for happiness an unfortunate distraction from the fight for the destiny of the country.
In my opinion the book is somewhat inconsistent. That mind blowing opening is a hard act to follow. The fragmentary presentation, jumping back and forth in time and from character to character became confusing. And while still well written and meaningful, the last part of the book lacked the dramatic grip of the beginning. Still, it is a book worth reading if you want to continue to try to understand the Middle East.
Will you tackle a book even knowing that some of it is going to be tough to face up to?
Note: The publisher provided a copy of Children of the Jacaranda Tree for review. My opinions remain my own, and you are free to disagree. Photos are from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license. I always suggest you click on the photo for more information. That is particularly recommended for the picture of Evin prison.
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