Bending boundaries

Bending boundaries

Lead Review

While translation gives us literal access to books written in alien tongues, the work of bridging gaps in culture and convention often falls to the reader. This additional effort is not grudged since it is in exchange for the vantage of an insider, providing us relatively unmediated access, and allowing us the pleasure of being able to map on our own terms dissimilar yet ultimately cognate realities. Censoring an Iranian Love Story is unusual in this respect, being a novel written in Persian, but intended to be read in translation by a primarily Western readership. Perhaps with good reason: Mandanipour was unable to publish in Iran for a five year period due to censorship, and has subsequently been living in the United States.

The novel consists of two interwoven narratives. One is the first person account of an Iranian writer who is “tired of writing dark and bitter stories,” and instead wants to write a reasonably happy love story. His trouble is that every manuscript must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, whose censors object to mention of the politically subversive, the female body, the very existence of physical attraction, alcohol, and anything else that can be imaginatively interpreted as un-Islamic.  

The other narrative is the tender and captivating love story of Dara and Sara, presented in a different font with parts that would offend the censors struck out but legible to the reader. The writer tries to work around these restrictions by playing with plot, character and language; and employing ellipses, symbolism, and allusion in the style of the old Sufi poets, all the while trying to preserve his own artistic sensibility. The tussle between writer and censor makes for a fascinating meditation on the act of writing fiction.

The motif of censorship is extended to various other aspects — segregation of the sexes; the obligatory cloaks, scarves and full-sleeved shirts; restrictions on political activism; the prohibition of dance and music — to provide an insightful and richly entertaining introduction to contemporary Iranian life.

Mandanipour is a very playful writer. The hawk-eyed, mind-reading censor whom the writer character must deal with is named Porfiry Petrovich after Dostoyevsky’s proto-sleuth. Characters from Iranian mythology and history, fictional characters from world literature, invading armies from the past, a ghost or two, and even a grounded whale in Tehran make brief appearances. But at times these elements combine in dizzying profusion, and one rather wishes the writer would return to his love story. The writer’s narrative becomes progressively more fugue like as the novel proceeds, with the boundary between the writer’s reality and his story becoming indistinct.

There is a kind of righteous complicity at work between the reader and Mandanipour. We already share his indignation about a culture forced into regress, and so it can seem tedious when he underscores his points. For instance, in a book filled with examples of how men and women are segregated, having the ghost of a male poet stop at the entrance to the women’s section of a mosque because even “his ghost is not allowed to enter that section,” comes across as needlessly melodramatic.

A particularly bleak Iranian prison, we are told, was “not even comparable to Guantánamo.” A scene in a revolving restaurant begins with this description: “The restaurant slowly turns — of course, with the occasional clanking of its worn-out engine, which is probably among the items embargoed by the United States and which cannot be purchased on the black market as easily as one can purchase centrifuges for enriching uranium.” This wilfully contrived potshot appears in the writer’s censored love story where anything even remotely politically sensitive is struck out, but surprisingly, not this part. The effect in this case is to rend both fictive veils. On the rare occasion such as this, there is the feeling that the writing stands exposed in its attempt to orient itself a certain way.

Dara and Sara at one point find themselves in a movie theatre watching an unnamed Kiarostami film, likely Through the Olive Trees from the on-screen description. (Kiarostami, incidentally, is no stranger to censorship. One of his films was denied release in Iran over a cow-milking scene.) Made in documentary style, the film revolves around the shooting of two scenes from an earlier Kiarostami film, And Life Goes On. The actors in the film-within-the-film are a young man and a woman he is wooing off the sets. The relationship between the actors influences the film they are part of, and their roles in the film in turn affect their relationship, blurring the boundaries between art and life.

While the book and the film employ similar devices, Kiarostami does so with a more austere hand, seemingly more in consonance with the people and landscape of his film. It may be necessary, as perhaps in Mandanipour’s case, to consciously target a work at an audience outside its milieu. But this can also be seen as an act of artistic self-censorship, restricting the work’s universality and relegating the audience to the position of tourists when they might have been travellers.