Released: October 2014
The crucial point that has to be made when talking about Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination lies very clearly in the contrast between the subtitles that were given to the book. The UK edition is entitled ‘The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction’, whereas the US edition is named ‘Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books’. This second title is considerably more accurate in describing what the book entails. It can’t be said that there is a lack of interest in American fiction here, and this new title for the UK raises the bar up to a level that the book doesn’t really hit, if only because it doesn’t seem to be the driving force behind Nafisi’s reasons for writing. Upon discovering these differences in the two titles, I felt as if it did go some way to explaining why I enjoyed the book, and yet still felt like I’d been slightly misinformed.
This is a book that chiefly explores the connections between three American classics and their influences and ideas on the concepts of American, and immigrant, identity. Nafisi’s first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, serves as a suitable companion piece, as that book explores the influence that the teaching of American fiction had on her group of students when Nafisi taught this subject in Iran. In Republic of Imagination Nafisi takes this further into her own experiences in moving to the States and becoming an American citizen. This personal story is actually the predominant narrative, particularly in the case of the first section in which she explores ideas within Huckleberry Finn.
Huckleberry was a figure of much importance to Nafisi and her lifelong friend Farah, whose discussions and friendly arguments over their much loved character take up a significant amount of this section of the book, whilst in the background Farah slowly suffers with cancer. Their friendship is a moving story, and if Farah comes off as the firm voice of reason compared to Nafisi’s academic daydreaming, it is surely intentional on Nafisi’s part. However, with the writing repeatedly coming back to these literary discussions the two would have in coffee shops over what what points Nafisi would put in her next book, you sometimes feel that you’re reading the essay plan and not the essay.
What might also come as a hindrance to some readers is that the book does only focus on three novels, albeit in great depth. This sometimes makes for hard reading if you’re not familiar with the book Nafisi is analysing. The second chapter in particular, which centred around a book with which I wasn’t familiar at all, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, became a difficult read, as Nafisi does predominantly choose to examine the novel through close in-depth textual analysis. This aspect gives further confusion as to why the subtitle ‘A Case for Fiction’ was chosen, considering how impossible it would be to try and sum up fiction with the example of only three books.
Nafisi’s passion for these three classics of American literature, however, as well as her own story of troubles of identity and hope in both Tehran and her adopted America, is a gripping and honest one.