Censoring an Iranian Love Story
Translated from the Farsi by Sara Khalili
Little Brown, Hardback, 293pp, ISBN: 978-1-4087-0160-7, Price: £14.99
Despite a long history of literacy and civilisation, when people in the West think of modern Iran at all, they tend to see a land of mad Mullahs, Islamic fundamentalists and possible atomic threat.
Shahriar Mandanipour’s new work does something to redress this, adding to his country’s impressive literary tradition. Like much of classical Iranian writing, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is multi layered and complex, containing many shades of meaning within a few lines.
The novel tells the story of two young lovers while commenting with acerbic wit on the Kafkaesque political situation in his native land. The lovers are at once personal and universal. By naming them Sara and Dara, the names from the first children’s reading books, equivalent to Janet and John in England, they become the archetypal male and female. Yet they live in a real Iran and wrestle with the real problems of surviving and loving in an Islamic Republic.
Mandanipour has managed the considerable feat of writing a proper story about young people with home lives, parents, struggles with education and first love, intertwined with a commentary on politics and the problems of writing in a country where everything is censored by the religious police. The usual difficulties inherent in young love – here exacerbated by the separation of the sexes in an Islamic State – are deeply absorbing. The narrative is interspersed with the writer’s views on the difficulties involved in daring to write such a politically incorrect book. There is censorship for the lovers hiding under the chador and censorship for the writer in talking about physical love. We are introduced to the ridiculous but nevertheless real problems of watching films or reading books in a religious dictatorship. All this with a very subtle and dry wit.
Initially I was dubious about the literary jokes, the way censorship was indicated by scoring through some of the text and the switches from story to author’s comments, but it is hard not to be won over by the intelligence of the writing (an intelligence that the reader is unpatronisingly expected to share) and the deadpan humour and despair of a man who shows an obvious love of his country while struggling with the way it is being run. I said earlier that the political situation was Kafkaesque, but while Kafka’s characters live in an imaginary world, Mandanipour’s live in the all too real world of modern Iran. However within this very real world the author introduces allusions to the fables of Iran and historical events until some parts of the book have an almost dreamlike quality.
This book has intelligence and humour, which demand much of its readers, but repays the effort in many ways. As a reflection on the way censorship affects the lives of all who live in modern Iran it is thought provoking without being in any way polemical. The layered way in which it is written recalls the literary traditions of the country’s classical literature. It is, in fact, very ‘Persian’. It is also very readable and in places extremely funny. Censoring and Iranian Love Story is a work that succeeds not only as a novel but also as a wonderful and imaginative journey into modern day Tehran.