Sunday, January 17, 2010

Censoring an Iranian Love Story

Liz Vega

Censoring an Iranian Love Story
Written by Shahriar Mandanipour
Translated by Sara Khalili

Coming across a great book is truly a gift that needs to be shared. My favorite book of 2009 was Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story. If you want to have the privilege of reading this post-modernist masterpiece by one of Iran's most controversial writers then get yourself a copy of this book. I advise you to buy a hardcover, deckle edge, first edition with an impeccable dust jacket because this is definitely one you will want to keep in your library.

In my little library it is right next to my first edition copies of Drown and the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao both by Junot Diaz. If I ever need to sell these books they will be worth a lot more because I got them before they had the award-winning stickers affixed to them and
Censoring an Iranian Love Story will definitely be reaping accolades.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a book of many stories in multiple layers told in an original and satirical manner. First off, we learn from the narrator, who like the author is named Shariar, that to be a writer in Iran means not only writing the story you want to write but also having to bowdlerize the story for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The narrator decides that he wants to write a love story. This proves to be a Herculean task as the spheres of males and females rarely intersect in post-revolutionary Iran. As readers we are privy to his thoughts and the figurative and literal reading between the lines. Many words are struck-through, followed by explanations provided by the narrator and then in bold what would actually be submitted to the minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a character named Perfiry Petrovich (yes, just like Dostoevsky's antagonist in Crime and Punishment). The author provides us with a narrative that's rich in dialogue and character development,and completely unpredictable as some things can be written and un-written. 

The relationship between the narrator and Petrovich grows as the book progresses and a love story develops between Dara and Sara, archetypal figures named after characters from Iranian textbooks, the equivalent of "Dick and Jane" in America or "Juan y Rosita" in the Mexican textbooks of my youth. Dara and Sara are two Tehrani lovers brought together by their passion for literature.  Dara sees Sara and is smitten, he overhears her asking the librarian for The Blind Owl, a banned book.  Dara poses as a street peddler selling books and encodes a message to Sara by placing dots under certain words in The Blind Owl.  Sara buys the book and their courtship begins through books borrowed from the library in which secret meesages are encoded in among books like Dracula, The Little Prince,and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The narrator elucidates the history of censorship in Iran and provides us readers with a primer on Persian literary masterpieces and other great Spanish, Czech, and Russian works that have emerged under repressive governments.  This Shahriar narrator is less erudite than Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran and far more entertaining as the lessons are peppered with references to popular culture.  Mandanipour's book also coincided with the Iranian elections and with the world and Bono (who among those in attendance at U2's 360 concert can forget the Persian eyes coming into focus in that giant screen?) taking a keener interest in what is happening in Iran so that very well could have contributed to the seemingly faster read

Shahriar Mandanipour brings to mind the adeptness of Jorge Luis Borges and Latin American writers with the techniques of magical realism executed cleverly and well.  For example, Sara's parents have arranged a marriage to Sinbad who is a government official. Sinbad's beard grows at a ridiculously accelerated pace and must contantly escape to the bathroom to trim his beard so that no one will notice. To understand the different layers within this novel readers may want to read some of the many works that are quoted and which inform the lives of the different characters.  Rich characters who engage in discussions on censorship as it pertains to other realms and will make one ponder and reflect on the great literature, film and art that is born of censorship. Could this book have been conceived in a non-restrictive environment?

In the end the most significant love story happens between the reader and the novel.  Thanks to Sara Khalili who wrote a beautiful translation from Farsi to English we can all find the many elements that will lead us there.


Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Thanks Liz for a great blog and for the introduction to what sounds like a very unique and interesting book. I love how you struck out the words in your review! And of course loved your reference to Bono. :)

Jerilyn said...

Viva Liz Vega! I definitely want to check this book out now after reading this great review - struck-out words and all!

DGarcia said...

Liz, I love your method of written delivery in this blog. The rich accumulation of literature that "Censoring" draws from is so compelling. Thanks for a great review!