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Censoring an Iranian Love Story

More than a love story, this novel serves as a meditation on culture, modern Iran, and the power of what is left out.

By Yvonne Zipp / May 29, 2009

It’s your typical love story: Boy sees Girl’s shoes under a card catalog at the library. Boy falls in love with Girl and writes her coded letters in books. Writer goes nuts trying to pen a love scene in a country where Boy and Girl can’t legally be together, either in public or private. Then the corpse of a hunchback dwarf shows up.

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In Censoring an Iranian Love Story, the first novel to be published in English by Iranian writer Shahriar Mandanipour, the first word of the title is the one that should govern a reader’s expectations. If you’re looking for a tale of love triumphing over all obstacles (and by gum, are there obstacles) or a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet, seek elsewhere.

If you like the intellectual challenge of the metafiction of J.M. Coetzee or Paul Auster, or the sheer spiraling loopiness of Charlie Kaufman films such as “Adaptation,” then grab a copy and prepare to enjoy a meditation on culture, modern Iran, and the power of what is left out. Oh, and make sure you read all the crossed-out lines: There’s some pretty pivotal information hiding under there.

As with “Adaptation,” Mandanipour’s main character is named Shahriar Mandanipour, a novelist who’s having a horrible time writing a “simple love story.” “I am an Iranian writer, tired of writing dark and bitter stories, stories populated by ghosts and dead narrators with predictable endings of death and destruction.”

But rebuilding a motorcycle engine underwater while blindfolded might be easier than constructing a happy ending. His problem isn’t writer’s block – it’s the difficulty of trying to find ways to outsmart the government censor, whom he nicknames Porfiry Petrovich (the detective who pursues Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment”), who has the tendency to show up at the most inconvenient times. Also, his characters won’t do what he tells them.

As Mandanipour rewrites different scenes, frantically crosses out lines, and explains cultural references from 700-year-old ghazals to the Al Pacino film “Scent of a Woman” (good luck getting that title past the Iranian censors), he is instructing a Western reader in the art of the unwritten. The ellipsis, we are given to understand, is one of the most powerful tools of a reader operating under censorship.

“When Sara reads a contemporary story, she reads the white between the lines, and wherever a sentence is left incomplete and ends with three dots like this ‘...,’ her mind grows very active and begins to imagine what the eliminated words may be. At times, her imagination goes farther and grows more naked than the words the writer had in mind. If she is as clever as an intelligence agent and has the power to decipher the codes that lie in the shadows of the petrified phrases and in the hidden whispers of the conservative words of Iran’s contemporary literature, she will find the very things she likes. Sara loves these three dots because they allow her to be writer, too....”


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