Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination is one of those not quite this not quite that sorts of books. By that I mean it is memoir but it isn’t and it is literary criticism but it isn’t. Sometimes it is more one than the other but throughout the personal is blended in with the literary. If you have read Reading Lolita in Tehran you will have an idea of what I mean. Only in this book, Nafisi talks much more in depth about the books.
Nafisi became an American citizen in 2008. I was surprised to learn she attended university in the United States, the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. There she studied literature. She left her job teaching literature in Tehran in 1995 because she no longer felt she could teach it properly without attracting too much attention from the authorities. She remained in Tehran until 1997.
Republic of Imagination was inspired by a question she had from an earnest young Iranian man at a reading she gave in Seattle. He told her that Americans didn’t care about books and literature, that in Iran they cared much more and didn’t she feel she was wasting her time talking to people about literature? Nafisi of course disagreed and this book is her answer.
Nafisi focuses on three American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers with an epilogue in which she discusses the work of James Baldwin. She examines what each book says about the American character and mindset and why the book is important still. Into her examination of each of the novels she weaves personal stories about friends, attending university in Oklahoma, Iran. Some of her personal stories fit better with the book under discussion than others but they are all interesting even when there is a disconnect.
The chapter on Huck Finn is by far the longest, taking up nearly half the book. Nafisi is very attached to Huck and Mark Twain but she goes on far too long. Perhaps it is because she used to discuss Twain with a dear friend who died from cancer. Perhaps it is also because at the time she was planning on writing an entire book on Twain and Huckleberry Finn. As interesting as her discussion was, however, I felt myself drifting off about two-thirds of the way through the chapter, wondering what more she could possibly say that she hadn’t already and wishing we could just move on to the next book. Once she does move on, the pace picks up again.
As much as I enjoyed Republic of Imagination, and I did enjoy it very much, I don’t think Nafisi managed to provide a very good response to the Iranian man. If her intent was to prove the importance of literature to Americans, she failed completely. She does succeed in arguing that American literature has some important things to say and that it very often connects directly to real life.
Nafisi is clearly a woman who is passionate about books and literature and wants to share that passion with others. The book often reads like a conversation, though it sometimes veers into lecture. I can imagine sitting in a cafe with her talking books, her leaning forward and eagerly asking, oh what did you think about this part? and drinking way too much coffee in an attempt to keep up with her energy and leaps of thought. Not a bad book, not a great book but a good book, a very enjoyable book that makes you happy to be a reader.