Censorship and sensibility
FICTION:SHAHRIAR MANDANIPOUR is one of the most prominent contemporary writers in Iran. He is best known for his collections of short stories but has also published novels, essays, children’s books and film reviews. As a young student he took part in the revolution of 1978-79, in the 1980s he joined the war against the invading Saddam Hussein’s army, in part because of a belief that the experience would make him a better writer, writes MARIA BAGHRAMIAN
His work faced a complete ban from 1992 to 1998, which was lifted in 1998, when, almost perversely, he was awarded Iran’s most prestigious literary prize for contributions to literature in the previous two decades.
He enjoyed a period of relative freedom during the presidency of the reformist cleric Ayatollah Khatami, and published Ultramarine Blue, a collection of 11 stories all connected to the events of 9/11. Mandanipour went to the United States in 2006, initially just for one year, on Brown University’s International Writers Project Fellowship. Since 2007 he has been a fellow at Harvard. The recent events in Iran make his immediate return unlikely but he continues writing perceptive commentaries on the unfolding political turmoil.
His works of fiction, densely metaphorical and replete with symbolisms drawn from the Persian literary tradition, reflect the extraordinary times he and his country have witnessed without being overtly political or tediously ideological.
Apart from some scattered translations of his short stories, Censoring an Iranian Love Storyis Mandanipour’s first major work to appear in English. The book was written in the US in Persian but has only been published in its English translation. In interviews, Mandanipour has talked about the total writer’s block that gripped him once he realised that outside Iran he was free to write anything he wished. The paralysis gave way to an outpouring of words that became this complex exploration of love, literature and censorship.
Censoring an Iranian Love Storyis the account of an Iranian writer’s efforts (Mandanipour himself), to write a love story both acceptable to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and true to its romantic aims. The book juggles three concurrent layers of narrative and meta-narrative which increasingly begin to seep into each other. The postmodernist techniques are reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriterand Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, but Censoringremains essentially Iranian and bears many hallmarks of a unique Persian literary heritage.
THE MAIN STORY, a love affair between Sara and Dara, repeats themes and scenes from one of his early short stories, The East of Violet, a tale of doomed love. Mandanipour, however, now hopes to write a love story with a happy ending, not a Hollywood happy ending, he tells us, but one that would at least avoid death and despair. Books, censored and uncensored, are both objects of love and vehicles for expressing it. Dara woos Sara by sending her hidden messages, by placing purple dots under certain letters in library books, which she then has to painstakingly decode. A hand-written copy of the 12th-century love poem Khosrow and Shirin by Nezami (the subject of a recent film by famous Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami) becomes the occasion of a major rift between the lovers. The book is equally about the author’s complex relationship with the ever-present censor, Porfiry Petrovich, named after the famous detective in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As the narrative unfolds, the censor and the censored begin to merge and Petrovich becomes a co-author of the story. He falls in love with Sara, attempts to murder Dara and asks the author to rewrite the book so that he can gain Sara’s love.
At the meta-fictional level, the author tries to pre-empt the censor by drawing lines over passages, sentences, or even single words that may offend the sensitive censor. The choices of what is struck out and their alternative formulations give the reader a first-hand experience of the twisted logic of censors in Iran. How could you even begin writing a love story when sentences such as “And for the very first time in this universe, their eyes meet” and “perfumes and poisons . . . sway on top of each other” have to be struck off? Derrida’s “writing under erasure” finds its natural home in Iran.
The official love story, which is printed in bold lettering, is strangely stilted and dull, the dialogues often forced and artificial. What rescues it, and the book, are the commentaries and background stories that the author provides in roman font. Dara’s two periods of imprisonment, the life-story of Sara’s dull and conformist suitor, and Sara’s own complex emotional make-up are described in rich and riveting detail. But the received impression that censorship stifles artistic creativity is not always true. Mandanipour’s enigmatic and yet breathlessly beautiful short stories retain a gripping immediacy that is absent from Censoring an Iranian Love Story. Persian poets and novelists, facing political and religious proscription, over centuries have developed a unique literary language with “thousands of symbols, metaphors, and similes that in addition to their mystical meanings and interpretations also whisper of amorous and sexual”. This complex literary style has frequently helped to circumvent censorship but paradoxically has also turned every written word into an object worthy of the censor’s scrutiny where “your mind will instinctively suspect every letter for fear that its connotations may commit a sin in the shadows of the reader’s mind”. Mandnipour’s earlier writings in Persian belong squarely to this tradition and this English translation manages to retain some of its elements.
THE BOOK’Sautobiographical meta-narrative seems to have been written for western readers. We learn abut the revolution of 1978-1979, the political purges that followed it, the restrictions imposed on speech, clothes, demeanour, the laws on censorship, and the plight of artists, poets and film makers. This realist strand would be of interest to those who wish to learn more about the 30-year-old Islamic Republic of Iran. Were the book to be published in Iran, much of it might seem over-familiar and tedious.
Censoringis not an easy read. It does not have the delightful directness of Satrapi’s Persepolis, nor the straightforward social and literary commentary of Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. But the absurdities of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran provide frequent moments of hilarity – typical of political satires in the tradition of Milan Kundera. Two scenes are particularly memorable. Dara, who had studied cinema at the university and had been imprisoned for selling illegal videos of Welles, Ford, Bergman and Antonioni, is given a job in the blind chief film censor’s office. His duties, as one member of a large committee, involve describing, in greatest detail, each scene of movies seeking permission for release whereupon the censor decides whether the film can be released and if so which parts will need to be eliminated. The ensuing discussions are masterpieces of the absurd. And the thwarted attempts to publish a Persian translation of Joyce’s Ulyssestake an unexpected turn when Mr Petrovich comes up with the compromise that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy could be published in Italian. “In Italian, not in English, because Italian is not a widely known language in Iran, and curious readers would not be able to find a dictionary quickly to translate the sentences and become sexually aroused”, he explains. I think the Joyce of Finnegans Wakewould have enjoyed the irony.
Mandanipour’s book in both its content and style gives us a timely glimpse of the complex and infuriatingly paradoxical society that is today’s Iran. As a writer in exile he has a difficult journey ahead, not least of which is to decide on his intended audience. He has, I think, the potential to create a genre of Persian literature that could breach the gap in literary sensibilities that separates readers from vastly different traditions.
Maria Baghramian is an associate professor in UCD school of philosophy and editor of the I nternational Journal of Philosophical Studies. She was born and grew up in Iran