On Love and Owls: A Review of "Censoring An Iranian Love Story"

on Friday, January 22, 2010
Pity the non-conforming author in a totalitarian regime, where even the most basic of love stories might lead to serious reprisal. In Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shahariar Mandanipour brilliantly captures the frustration of writing to both appease and subvert the censors, laying bare the absurdity of the country's theocracy and its crushing effect on creativity.

At its most basic the novel tells the story of Dara and Sara, two young students who buck traditional mores and - God help them - fall in love. In a country where contact between a man and woman (assuming they are not husband and wife or blood relatives) can result in physical violence or jail, the two must foster their relationship through clandestine means. They encode love notes in classic novels, meet in internet chat rooms and engineer 'chance encounters' that will not arouse the suspicion of the Campaign Against Social Corruption's roving patrols. All the while, Dara feels the presence of a malevolent shadow watching his every move and, perhaps, intent on ending his life.

From the outset it is clear there is something more than this story of forbidden love. Lines that might result in the book being banned for sexual explicitness or political agitation are struck out (although we, as readers, can still see them). There is also an omnipresent authorial voice, telling those parts of the story that cannot be written, and documenting the ongoing battle with Mr. Petrovich, the chief censor. The layers of this multi-narrative are seamlessly integrated, achieving in a much more artful way that which was attempted by J. M. Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year. Rather than simply being an intellectual experiment as it was in Coetzee's novel, here the device is actually integral to the tale. The result is a wonderfully cerebral celebration of romance and (banned) literature replete with ingeniously interwoven cultural references, from the highbrow (Hedayat's "The Blind Owl", Steinbeck, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, etc) to the rather less sophisticated (James Cameron's Titanic) and even the straight-up wacky (Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, in the interplay between creator and created). For its textual sophistication alone, this book deserves to be read. But Mandanipour is much more than a literary acrobat, and Censoring An Iranian Love Story will no doubt go down as one of the great works of modern Persian writing.


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