DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour (Author), (trans. Sara Khalili). Vintage, 304pp., $15.95.
Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, actually de-censors and writes not just an Iranian love story but also a contemporary Iranian existence, one that is censored, although for different reasons, both within the borders of the country and outside of it. In this society writing is to be censored, life is to be censored. But the writer, with the help of his fictional alter-ego, turns censoring into writing, turns writing into life. To achieve this, Mandanipour practices in his structure what he is talking about in his content: a multi-layered existence, vague boundaries, a constant struggle between censoring and de-censoring, and the merging of fiction and reality.
The novel is not merely about a love story—it is about contemporary Iran. Notably, it examines what it means to want to write, to want to live in a society that pushes individuals into paradoxical, layered, and complicated situations that shouldn’t be able to co-exist, yet somehow do. A simple linear, chronological narration would not do it justice. The layered existence that marks contemporary Iran cannot be exposed, except by a layered narrative of the kind Mandanipour uses; the uncertainty of life by merging reality and fiction.
At this first layer, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is about a writer, Mandanipour’s alter ego (also called Mandanipour) attempting to write a love story that can survive the official censorship apparatus. This layer includes the writer’s interactions with the censor who is in charge of reading and deciding the faith of the love story. The second layer is the layer of the official love story (published in boldface, crossed out as to suggest censoring), the one Mandanipour hopes to publish. The third layer is the love story beyond the bold parts, which the writer does not (cannot) include in the version he wants to publish, yet continues to write nonetheless in order to portray the characters Dara and Sara, their “real” fictional lives and their relationship. The fourth, perhaps best called the “reportage” layer, is the story of Iran, providing/including factual information about the nation’s past and present for readers whom Mandanipour is the fictional writer directly addressing. The fifth layer, which is interspersed here and there in the book, is the story of the midget along with other surreal historical narrations. The sixth layer is the fusion of the supposedly “real” layer of the story, that of the first layer, with the fictional layers of the story. The twist here is that Mandanipour, the alter ego, and the censor at some point start to share the same realm, the same world, with Dara and Sara and the other unreal characters.
What is real or fictional in the book is not very clear cut. Dara and Sara are clearly fictional in the realm of the official love story, but beyond that we are not so sure. In the realm of the non-official, uncensored love story, they are still fictional, because they are being written by Mandanipour; but they also at times act without the knowledge or consent of their writer, as if the writer is watching real people and simply telling us about them. The writer on the page himself is real in his own realm, as is the censor, but they are fictional if we position ourselves in the realm of Mandanipour the real writer and we the real readers. Similarly, the midget and the surreal narratives we read of, even though surreal and fictional in all the present layers, might be seen as real if we are in the midget’s realm. (Perhaps all the rest that seems real to us is simply fictional to the midget.) The only one element that remains in a sense constantly real and is shared between all these layers, between all these characters, regardless of their layer and relationships to one another, is the place, the time: Iran.
The multiple layers are not applied only at the level of narration but also in the issues discussed in the novel. One such issue is that of censorship at the core of the book. Censorship happens in more than just the process of writing; it happens every day in people’s lives when they make choices against their hearts to pursue the life they are supposed to lead. For example Dara censors his desires for what he wants to do in life both because of his previous arrests and because he needs to support his family; or Sara seems to consider censoring her feelings for Dara in order to get the luxurious life she wishes for through the rich suitor, Sinbad. The novel encourages us to construe censorship broadly, not only as something enforced by government agencies and regulations; different forms of it can also be forced upon one by history, traditions, the general public’s or one’s family’s beliefs and opinions; or they can simply be (un)conscious and/or self-imposed.
The narrative uses various interpretations of another element—time—to its advantage as well. It frames everything in the present moment of the fictional writer, from the time he starts attempting to write the love story and onward, and this is accompanied by the ongoing forward movent of his characters’ story. Within this main frame, the narrative explores Dara and Sara’s romantic past, their individual lives before they met, and also provides information and narrations from Iran’s past. This movement in time allows Mandanipour to bring in a wide range of stories and to tell us more. Mandanipour, moreover, discards temporal realities and integrates the past with the present, especially in the parts where his supposedly “real” sections become surreal.
Mixing written storytelling with oral, , Censoring an Iranian Love Story moreover puts its readers at a double-folded situation. Mandanipour, the fictional writer, directly addresses his readers, using the pronoun “you,” asking them questions, answering their questions. This actually adds a seventh layer to the story, the layer shared by the writer and his readers. Since he is the fictional writer, then the readers he addresses are supposedly fictional as well. But these readers are none but us, the real readers. With this structural choice, Mandanipour makes us characters in the story and pushes us too into the labyrinth he has created. We too are at one level fictional and at another real.
The disappearance of the boundaries between the narrative layers and its multiple stories makes us feel lost; we do not know for certain which level we are standing in at any moment. This lack of solid footing mirrors the lot of the characters in the story. Never knowing for sure who might show up at any moment, one never knows what might happen next, what is real or fictional, and whether what was so far fictional has turned into real and when (or whether) it will once again become fictional.
In this the text mirrors the reality of the today situation of Iran. Many young men for example share part of or all of Dara’s struggles; he defines himself in relation to his country, his family, the officials, the financial situation, the university situation, his prison history, his blooming love for Sara, the desire for a relationship that needs to remain hidden for various reasons, his love for foreign intellectual movies and for literature, etc; he faces an uncertain future. Many writers share part of or all of Mandanipour’s struggles; his story is and is not his life; his censor is part of his life, part of his story, a part he needs to go beyond but can’t really. Even the businessman Sinbad is a picture of the nouveau riche; men with religious and virtuous ideals who are now titans of the money-making machine, who want a life that is not necessarily in line with their own beliefs.
The country today and its characters are going through a time of transition. At a time of transition, boundaries become the murkiest realities. Everything is woven together; everything is metamorphosing constantly. History, culture, traditions, religion, politics, the law, the government, the world beyond the borders, the virtual world, national and international, official and nonofficial, are all tightly connected with one’s private life. Life is a slippery reality that can change any second due to an unpredictable yet totally possible change in any one number of these aspects. One’s life story is written not by just oneself, but by other forces as well. It is not defined by clearly planned-for or even clearly wished-for personal choices. Mandanipour’s novel is that story, that slippery reality. One never knows where one is standing in it, where one is heading.
It’s relevant to talk of the role of displacement in Mandanipour’s novel from another point of view as well: the displacement of language and its effect on the text and its readers. Mandanipour, the real writer, is a well-known widely published author in his native Iran. He came to the U.S. in 2006 as a recipient of Brown University’s International Writers Project Fellowship, which is awarded to writers who cannot write freely in their homeland. He has not gone back since. Mandanipour wrote Censoring an Iranian Love Story in the U.S. in Persian, and the book was then translated (by translator Sara Khalili) into English and published in the States.
As Josip Novakovich says (about writing stories in English of his homeland Croatia), out of one’s native realm the familiar elements of one’s country and culture are transformed “into a reality of their own,” creating stories that are “perhaps more surreal than real,” a surrealism that nonetheless “expresses very real fears and longings” (“A Conversation with Josip Novakovich,” in Infidelities, 2005, Harper Perennial). What Novakovich says holds true for Mandanipour and his work, because even though Mandanipour wrote Censoring an Iranian Love Story in Persian, he obviously wrote it for the foreigner, for the Other who doesn’t know Iran, who doesn’t read Persian. In an interview with Radio Open Source, Mandanipour himself said that the book is “just right for Western readers. [It is] a sort of testimony about our culture, about our writers.” The book, which was published in 2009 while in Iran protestors poured to the streets after the disputed presidential election that returned hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, wants to tell the non-Iranian about the intricacies of this over-complicated society in ways that no news coverage can (or wants to). News might cover and tell us about the existence of censorship, but they can’t go into details about how it works its way through and into the most unexpected angles of not only stories, but lives, not just of the creators but even of the censors. Or they might tell about limitations imposed on the lives of the youth in Iran, but can’t show so many different aspects of those lives or deal as deeply with them. The inability of the media is not just because of the restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities on journalists, or in the case of foreign media because of their lack of interest in the issues, or the inability of parachute reporters to deeply analyze anything. It is also because of the lines between private and public, and the mere nature of human emotions and thoughts. It is because of the nature of news vs. literature. It is only through literature that such subtleties can be brought to life in such extent and complexity, especially for the foreigner, the Other who hasn’t lived them.
One can say that Mandanipour actually wrote his story in translation; except that instead of using another language, he used the linguistic signs of his own language. Like most émigré writers, he faced not just a change of geographical location but also exile, or at least displacement in language, the possibility of not being able to continue to write or live in his mother tongue. Mandanipour, with the way he has approached writing the book, puts himself, even within the boundaries of his mother tongue, in a defamiliarized situation; exactly like he, as a person, is put in a defamiliarized land.
The writer’s conscious decisions about his audience and the linguistic displacement have implications for the readers as well. The Iranian reader who knows Persian and understands many of the cultural intricacies brought into the narrative is reading them in another language; as a result such a reader is also displaced, disoriented, in a foreign terrain, at a distance from reality. (A question that comes to mind here is however: Where does the writer’s decision about audience position the Iranian reader especially with regard to content? What is in the book for him/her? What won’t be working?) Likewise, the non-Iranian reader will be forced to overcome cultural challenges. Everyone faces some form of translation. There always remains a distance, a layer of removal, between the text and its writer; between the text and its readers; between the writer and his readers (from any culture, with any mother tongue). Censoring an Iranian Love Story’s structure and language are once again practicing what the narration is about. A story about the impossibility of simple direct expression cannot be merely expressed. The only way it can be expressed is through veils, removed from what was originally meant to be expressed. The writer is removed from his origins, forced into displacement, solely because of his want to express, so should be his text and his readers.
Meanwhile, it seems that at times Mandanipour himself and as a result his alter ego both seem to get lost in these myriad worlds. What the fictional version of Mandanipour keeps or crosses out in the official story is not always consistent according to his own explanations and awareness of the censorship issues.
Moreover, the boldface official story and the unofficial story aren’t really kept distinct and separate. It’s true that the two parts together provide the complete story, and there are no real boundaries between the two. But considering that the fictional Mandanipour is trying to write the boldface story as a separate novel to send out for publication, one would expect that it should stand alone as a solid work. It should be coherent, even if not good. When that doesn’t happen, we start to doubt the core idea of the book: that the writer is attempting to write the official story and while doing so also goes on to tell us the rest of the story. If this is a hint that the writer is failing to write only the official and at some point decides to write the whole story, that the two start to merge, then at some point the text should have been merged into just one typeface.
There are other things that cause some hesitation about getting totally immersed in this labyrinth. The first chapter of the novel and its characters seem significantly different from the rest. The midget’s appearance, and the historical and surreal parts don’t blend in as smoothly as the other narrative variants. One wonders about hints at Sara’s imminent death in the beginning, the presence of Doctor Farhad and the confusing hints about his role in the story. The love story and its characters sometimes feel too cliché and superficial, reminding one of TV soap operas, as if dealt with in an offhanded manner. The world in which the characters live, in which their love story happens, and the ways they handle their love in this world feel deeply real and complicated. But the characters themselves and their love for one another seem to not be of flesh and blood, are sometimes too childish, sometimes too simplistic. The Dara who writes messages in code, who lives with movies; the Sara who reads literature, who holds that weird placard in the students’ protest . . . they simply disappear, and not just in the official story, which would be justified, but also in the other part, which is supposedly their real life. (Is it possible that Mandanipour has done so deliberately and we are missing something? Or that he has merely not gone to the trouble, since he has other more important plans for the story and the characters?)
Despite making us pause and wonder whether the real Mandanipour could have done a better job at realizing his playful myriad structure and carrying through his content, these failings do not stop us from following Mandanipour (the real and the fictional) through this labyrinth that reminds us of the bitter yet humorous Eastern European literature. Moreover, in this labyrinth the key issue remains that of survival: the survival of Dara and Sara as individuals and as lovers; the survival of love itself; the survival of the society in general; the survival of the censor; the survival of the midget; the survival of the fictional writer; the survival of, at an extra-textual level, the real writer, Mandanipour, in another country, in another language, with new readers; and the survival of all writers and with them, the survival of the story and of writing, none of which are simple matters in this day and age in Iran.
Raha Namy is an English-Persian translator and editor who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Denver. Her work has appeared in the Barcelona Review, Short Fiction, Baltimore Review, Tehran Bureau, and others.
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