A peek inside

Censoring an Iranian Love Story
by Shahriar Mandanipour
translated from Farsi by Sara Khalili

This is a complicated book to explain, and indeed to read and form a reaction to. But it’s also an illuminating look into a world we in the West don’t get to see in detail: modern-day Iran.

Mandanipour tells the story of an author (called Mandanipour, in a postmodern manner) who is trying to write a simple love story for publication in Iran. The problem is that censorship is so strict in Iran that he keeps having to delete or change sentences or whole scenes, compromising his art. So in this novel we get both his love story and his thought process about it inbetween, including his flashbacks to previous encounters with the chief censor, Mr Petrovich, and imagined future ones.

There are many complications to writing a love story in Iran, not least of which is how your characters can possibly meet. Unmarried men and women should never be alone with or speak to members of the opposite sex outside of their family. This is controlled both in reality – by a combination of genuine religious belief and militia – and in the arts, by censorship.

It’s a very eye-opening, important story to tell but the problem is that by using this two-layer technique, by explaining where the ideas for the characters come from and rewriting scenes as you try to follow them, it’s hard to get involved in the love story. But you also don’t really get to know the author as a character, so you are left at a distance from it all. This doesn’t stop it being readable and enjoyable even, but it did prevent it from being absorbing.

The love story is that of Sara and Dara (named after characters in now-banned learning-to-read books well known in Iran), a young pair whose love story begins with books, in particular banned or heavily censored books. The author explains how the books are either edited by hand with a black marker pen or printed with ellipses all over the place and how this leads the ellipsis to have an almost magical, often erotic, quality. He also explains the various methods Iranian authors use to evade censorship, including heavy use of allusion and metaphor, which he feels makes a story harder to read and less true to its art.

Dara is knowledgeable about great works of literature and film, and both he and the author reference both heavily, almost as though they are secret code, which I suppose for them they are. Dara has a “political past” which means that he can never earn a great deal or risk stepping out of line. Sara is young and nervous about breaking rules or letting down her family, though she does have a passionate nature that can get her into trouble.

What makes this book occasionally hard to follow is that Mandanipour blurs the line between the two stories, so that sometimes Sara or Dara speaks directly to the author, or an anecdote the author tells about his life merges into their story. But even without this, the story isn’t straightforward. There is some toying with magical realism and the fantastical, there is a recurring character who is a street pedlar selling spells and love potions, and there’s a dead dwarf who keeps popping up.

However, it isn’t a struggle to read because what shines through all the complexity of plot is a love of language and a playful humour. For all his frustration, the author loves his country and its rich history and references many Persian poets that I had never heard of. He introduces characters and stories from Persian literature, sometimes veering off again and again from his original point so that it is a jolt to come back to Sara and Dara.

Though he has been writing for decades, this was Mandanipour’s first full-length work to be translated into English. I would be interested to read more (and will look out for the short stories his bio implies are out there somewhere in translation).

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Little, Brown.
Paperback published in 2011 by Abacus.