Censoring an Iranian Love Story
By Shahriar Mandanipour. Knopf, 295 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Do not read this book if you’re impatient. Do not read this book if you resist metafictional conceits. And most importantly, do not read this book if, for some reason, you’ve mistaken it for a beach-worthy romance. A love story it is; Love Story it’s not.
Novelist and film critic Shahriar Mandanipour’s first English-language offering, translated from the Farsi by Sara Khalili, is, it must be said, slow going. And while its tale of star-crossed lovers will seem as familiar as Romeo and Juliet—even if Mandanipour’s hero is a former political prisoner and his heroine wears a headscarf—this supposed romance is really an extended meditation on the crippling effects of censorship and theocracy on the creative spirit.
Dara and Sara are Mandanipour’s protagonists, but their halting courtship is paralleled by the fraught liaison between their chronicler and an Iranian censor named Mr. Petrovich. And although the lovers never consummate their affair, we get to plunge headlong into the narrator’s attempts to decipher the limits of Islamic propriety.
“If you live in a country where its fourteen-hundred-year-old language contains thousands of symbols, metaphors, and similes that in addition to their mystical meanings and interpretations also whisper of amorous and sexual connotations.”¦then surely your mind will instinctively suspect every letter for fear that its connotations may together commit a sin in the shadows of the reader’s mind,” Mandanipour’s stand-in muses.
Consequently, every time he prepares to describe Sara’s beauty, he pulls back, certain that Petrovich will excise any mention of her unveiled hair. Explorations of Dara’s erotic longing are similarly subject to scrutiny for phallic allusions. Unable to write the truth, the narrator grows increasingly unhinged; meanwhile, the love story progresses in a welter of black ink and crossed-out passages.
Now, at this point it should be noted that our censor’s most un-Iranian name alludes to Porfiry Petrovich, the cunning police inspector in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. To get the most out of Censoring an Iranian Love Story, it will help to be familiar with the European precursors of existentialism (especially Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka), not to mention the histories of Persian poetry and American film. Mandanipour’s erudition is impressive, and he expects his readers to make a similar intellectual effort. But the struggle is rewarded with a depiction of an odious regime that’s so psychologically astute it’s almost physically painful.