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Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story: a Novel gives us three extraordinary books for the price of one: first, an indictment of the absurdities and the horrors of living under a political regime so paranoid that everything must be censored, i.e., a casebook of censorship in contemporary Iran. Second, one writer’s valiant attempts to publish a love story set in such a repressive society, documenting his endless encounters with a specific censor. Third, that love story itself, endlessly bowdlerized for what most of us in the West would consider innocuous remarks. Plus a bonus fourth: a daring post-post-post-modern novel likely to be discussed and analyzed for years. In short, an instant classic.
One might begin with the casebook of current censorship in Iran, where—according to the state—there is no censorship. “This new constitution allows the printing and the publishing of any and all books and journals and strictly prohibits their censorship and inspection. Unfortunately, however, our constitution makes no mention of these books and publications being allowed to freely leave the print shop.” Catch 22.
Or, to cite an actual literary example: James Joyce’s Ulysses: “…the last effort made by…his Iranian translator, and his publisher to obtain a publishing permit for the Farsi translation of Ulysses met with failure. At the time, Mr. Petrovitch, who tried to be lenient with Iranian writers and translators and wanted to somehow work out their problems, suggested that the stream of consciousness voiced by Molly, the female character who has visions of adultery, be printed in Italian in the Farsi translation.” Pure farce? Almost, since the censor’s name is Porfiry Petrovitch–“yes, the detective in charge of solving Raskolnikov’s murders.”
It’s not only books, magazines, journals, and newspapers censored by the authorities (the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance), but music (including musical instruments), movies (especially DVDs, which nonetheless flourish in an elaborate underground network), dancing, clothing—not simply skimpy clothes which might be worn by women, but neckties, which the writer/narrator speculates have been forbidden “because they can be perceived as an arrow pointing to a man’s lower organ.” I am not making this up and neither is Shahriar Mandanipour, though he can’t resist cataloging these excesses with incredible wit.
The text includes dozens of passages in the narrator’s story-in-progress crossed out, with a line drawn through them, in order to indicate the lines that the censor, Mr. Petrovitch, deems unfit for Iranian readers, especially the country’s youth. For example, “Dara’s sobs are like nails piercing the ears of those who tap the telephones of lovers.”
Ironically, some Iranian writers (particularly poets) confess to have learned something about their craft through the mere threat of censorship that confronts them with everything they write. “[One] great poet’s discovery was that censorship drives a poet or a writer to abstain from superficiality and to instead delve into the layers and depths of love and relationships and achieve a level of creativity that Western poets and writers cannot even dream of.”
Not so, however, with Shahriar, Mandanipour’s alter ego and his double, the narrator with the same name as the writer, who describes himself at the beginning of the novel as
“an Iranian writer tired of writing dark and bitter stories, stories populated by ghosts and dead narrators with predictable endings of death and destruction…. I, with all my being, want to write a love story. The love story of a girl who has never even seen the man who has been in love with her for a year and whom she loves very much. A story with an ending that is a gateway to light. A story that, although it does not have a happy ending like romantic Hollywood movies, still has an ending that will not make my reader afraid of falling in love. And, of course, a story that cannot be labeled as political. My dilemma is that I want to publish my love story in my homeland.”
And that’s the rub.
But how—in a society that controls the lives of women, that prohibits young men and women from being together without a chaperone—how, under these circumstances, can they even meet? And if a young man glances at a young woman—as Dara did at Sara on the street during a political demonstration–how can he pursue his interest in her, since they are prohibited from meeting alone under any circumstances? This is Shahriar’s challenge in writing his story, overcoming the obstacles to get his youthful hero and heroine (neither of whom has experienced even the innocence of a kiss) in the same room together. But well before he can even move them into that room, an elaborate subterfuge must first be woven in order that Sara (a university student) becomes aware of Dara’s existence. That is no simple matter since Dara is a house painter and the lives of these two characters, even in the best of circumstances, should not bring them together.
Shahriar describes his innumerable encounters with Mr. Petrovitch, in the latter’s office where the state literary censor often meets with writers and their publishers as they haggle over passages that Petrovitch has crossed out of manuscripts, page proofs, and printed works. The two of them also frequently meet on the street, where the censor has the gall to ask him about his story-in-process and how it’s going with Sara and Dara. On one occasion, Petrovitch tells the writer, “In this world of reckoning and retribution, there are all sorts of killings. Remember, thinking of sin is itself a sin. You writers should know that if the thought of writing a sinful story enters your mind, your sin is far greater than that of an ordinary person, because your sin infects the minds of your readers, and the more readers you have, the greater your sin. Do you understand?”
What’s so intimidating about censorship under the Iranian system is that if the threat works as intended, all too soon the writer begins to censor himself. He doesn’t even bother to write the controversial scene because of apprehension that it will be censored. Thus, the next logical stage is no writing at all, no doubt the state’s objective from the beginning.
So what’s left? Well, in the case of Censoring an Iranian Love Story, plenty. The menacing encounters between author and censor eventually give way to playful meetings between the author and his characters. In a particularly delicious scene, when Dara is frantically trying to get a few minutes alone with Sara, when the two characters are close to feeling hopeless that such an encounter will ever occur, Shahriar is, as he himself describes the situation, “forced to inspire Dara.” To wit, he whispers into his hero’s ear,
“Boy! Look to your right. What do you see?”
“Well, this hospital has an emergency room. Do you get it?”
Dara looks at me sheeplessly. I say:
“You really deserve to be a virgin at thirty-something. Go to the emergency room, sit comfortably in a couple of chairs, and talk…Do you get it?”
“He looks at me with such surprise it is as if he is looking at Bacchus. I say:
“This is one of the few benefits of having a writer for a friend. It will never occur to the police or the patrols that a young couple would take advantage of an emergency room like this.”
Clearly, there are some benefits to the self-censorship Shahriar has learned under Petrovitch’s tutelage, and these incidents—when they occur—add still another layer of delight to the novel’s dark subject. Thus, in the actual portions of the story-in-progress that we read us it unfolds, conveniently printed in bold face, the narrator can revise what he has just written. Of one incident, Shahriar states, immediately after a bold-faced passage, “No, this won’t do. Let’s leave this chapter entirely unread. I don’t understand why I have dragged Dara down that terrifying alley….” In other words, suspense suspended. Or, in another immediate reflection by the writer/narrator, “What is going on? I have no recollection at all of having written such a scene. Why did I kill the central character in my story right in the middle of the novel? And in such weak prose. I had no intention.” Even the character has the chutzpah to charge the narrator, “You wrote me like this to pass your story through censorship.”
Other writers will immediately identify with such a passage as the musings of all writers who re-write, re-write, re-write. Thus, Mandanipour provides the reader with re-takes, metacriticism, out-takes–whatever you want to call them–all churned together in the problematic situation of trying to be a serious writer in a society in which “ninety-nine percent of Iranians do not perceive literature as serious work.” We’ll ignore the fact that a similar percentage is probably true of the people in other countries, perhaps even in the one in which Mandanipour now resides: the United States. More revealing, however, is the fact that Censoring an Iranian Love Story, though written in Farsi, has not been published in Farsi. About Italian, I am not yet certain.
Well, that last line by your reviewer should no doubt have been cut, but with a novel as irresistible, as bleak, yet as witty as Shahriar Mandanipour’s, it would be surprising if the writer’s style did not overtake the critic and provoke a certain amount of consternation about what has been written. My own judgment is clear: I haven’t read a more imaginative novel in years.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.