Reading Lolita in Tehran is the best memoir I’ve ever read. It’s intelligent, creative, intimate, and intricately and artfully narrated. I paused several times throughout my reading so that I could participate in author Azar Nafisi’s classroom just a little bit longer.
Her firm grasp of English Literature and Literary Criticism serve as a surprising, but really quite fitting, foundation to a discussion on revolutionary Iran. The memoir is about politics and fundamentalism, but it’s ultimately about the human condition, about how our proclivity for self narration informs the way we see and form ourselves and our societies. Stories can obstruct as much as they reveal, destroy as much as they create. The book, then, can be understood as a literary critique of the story Iran tells about itself at the start of the Iranian Revolution and of the thousands of personal narratives spilled out to counter it. Perhaps in peeling off these wordy layers – narratives piled on top of narratives – we can begin to arrive at something closer to the truth. But the truth we discover is less tangible, though just as moral in its aim as the black and white ethics imposed upon the Iranian people. It is seeing, really seeing, the multifaceted nature of humanity; we are strong, dishonest, cowardly, loving, kind, hateful, and oblivious all at once. We are all capable of evil. We all lean toward apathy.
I can only assume that those who say they “couldn’t really get into it” were expecting the light stuff of Eat, Pray, Love and its equals. But Reading Lolita in Tehran is the pinnacle of what memoir can be. It’s what memoir should be. You should leave with more than a feeling. As Nafisi explains within the book, literature exists to provide context for the individual, to explore the nuances of human interaction and behavior. Reading Lolita in Tehran bridges the gap between literature and autobiography; you should leave it with a better understanding of the other and yourself, and with a great deal more empathy.