Nabokov has, in his brilliant lectures and lessons on literature, said, “Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf, and there was no wolf behind him.”
But this is simple. I would say that the best stories are those in which the lying shepherd boy, or the writer, comes crying wolf, wolf, and a wolf that was not there appears behind him.
I’m fascinated by Censoring an Iranian Love Story. There’s an inflection, a way in which the narrator structures his sentences, which I love. Mandanipour’s writing style is distinctively Middle Eastern (in contrast to a Western author writing about the Middle East). There’s a poetic formality to his phrasing, yet at the same time a lightness to his overall prose that keeps the novel from becoming too dense. Shahriar Mandanipour describes his country as only a hometown boy does – with understanding, a tinge of sadness and a hefty dose of irony.
The novel’s premise, and the goal of the book’s narrator – Mandanipour’s thinly veiled alter ego – is to write a love story and see it published in Iran.
…for reasons that like other writers I will probably discover later, I, with all my being, want to write a love story. The love story of a girl who has never 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… Unlike in many countries around the world, writing and publishing a love story in my beloved Iran are not easy tasks.
To accomplish these tasks he needs to get past the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the embodiment of which is the character of Mr. Petrovich. And so a large part of the narrative is taken up by the author examining and second guessing his characters’ actions; deciding what can be said openly and what should be implied. His hope is that though he will need to compromise, it will not be at the expense of artistic integrity. Our narrator believes, naively, that he will be able to reason with the Ministry. His conversations with Mr. Petrovich are enlightening.
Mr. Petrovich will say:
“Do you really think that if writers write about the wolf it will show up behind them?”
“It depends. If they write really well and creatively, somehow some sort of a wolf will appear behind them and before the eyes of the reader.”
But this is very dangerous. What you are saying is that writers can write about hundreds of antiregime guerrilla groups and thousand of counterrevolutionaries, spies, and malfeasants, and they will all appear.”
I have to kick myself really hard. What have I done? I have not only made matters worse for myself and my colleagues, but…
“In reality, you story writers are like Aaron, who made a golden calf and misled the Israelites. You deserve whatever trouble comes your way.”
The love story, about an Iranian couple named Dara & Sara, is printed in bold text. It is constantly interrupted by the author’s explanations, protests, insertions of himself into the narrative action and self-censorship. Entire passages are crossed out with black lines (but are still legible for the sake of the reader). Censoring an Iranian Love Story, visually, has a very Tristram Shandy feel to it. And while the love story is poignant: star-crossed lovers separated by government, economics and class; a more complicated metafiction is told over and around it.
One of the things I found unusual about Censoring an Iranian Love Story is the playful way in which Mandanipour deals with what could easily become pretty depressing subject matter. At no point did I doubt the accuracy of his descriptions – I’ve read other books that prepared me for the culture shock of Iran. But this is where irony plays a key role: much like families will tell funny anecdotes about crazy uncles and disastrous vacations, Mandanipour’s narrator describes his homeland with both humor and affection. And while there are obvious fantastical asides, some embroidery of the facts, the novel captures the essence of a country and city that simultaneously inspires and infuriates. Shahriar Mandanipour’s love story is not just about the relationship between his hero and heroine. It is about his own love affair with Iran.
Unfortunately, these two love stories seem destined to only end badly. I read that because of this novel Shahriar Mandanipour cannot return to Iran. The obstacles that Dara, Sara and scores of Iranian youth face appear insurmountable. But, despite a gloomy outlook, for two hundred and ninety-five pages the reader is treated to a magical story inhabited by One Thousand and One Nights, flying carpets, a hunchbacked dwarf, alchemists and ghosts. Again and again Mandanipour’s narrator invites us to “Ask so that I can explain…”
And the explanations are beautiful. There is a delicate intricacy to Censoring an Iranian Love Story which, combined with the tone of the writing and the psychologically complex characters at the novel’s center, will not fail to enchant.
Due out in paperback, from Vintage, on June 1st.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2009)
ISBN: 978 0 307 26978 2