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Shahriar Mandanipour: Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009)

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour is one of the most interesting novels I’ve ever read – interesting in the sense that it is highly innovative. The book tells the love story of Sara and Dara, two young Iranians trying to square their budding relationship with the oppression of the Iranian political regime, which leads them to leave secret messages in books, pretend not to know each other, meet in secret, and much more (which you should discover for yourselves).

But in fact, Censoring… is about much more than Sara and Dara. The novel has three layers: the actual novel, the story of the author writing the book, and those parts of the love story the author has crossed out or merely imagined in order to pass censorship.

Out of the three layers, the author’s story was the one that gripped my attention the most. Full of wit, insight, and irony, Mandanipour’s literary alter ego, Shahriar, lets the reader in on the thousand and one tricks an Iranian author has to perform in order to get his work approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He relates his encounters with ‘his’ censor, “a man with the alias Porfiry Petrovich (yes, the detective in charge of solving Raskolnikov’s murders)”, and the almost intimate, but simultaneously destructive  relationship that has developed between them over the years. For someone like me, who knows virtually nothing about Iranian culture, it is fascinating to delve into the mind of an Iranian intellectual.

The way the book is presented is very inventive, with parts of the novel crossed out, those parts of the novel actually written down in boldface, and those thoughts the author keeps to himself, as well as his own story, set in normal font. This looks quite cool and merits a picture, so here goes:

Unfortunately, Sara and Dara’s actual love story – that is, the novel – somehow failed to capture me. This might be due to precisely the narrative’s presentation, which never lets you dive into the story completely because the next disruption is always just around the corner. I’d be interested to know whether this is intentional. Perhaps Mandanipour wants the reader to remain somewhat distanced from the plot because this is exactly what would happen if we were to read the version eventually approved by the powers that be. In that case, it would be a highly effective literary tool. But it might also just be that the story itself is not that captivating. Has anyone read this book and can enlighten me? I’m having a hard time deciding, although I’d obviously rather believe the first possibility to be true.

On the whole, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is definitely worth a read because it submerges you in a world that is completely foreign to most of us. And, as I said, the innovativeness of the presentation alone makes for a very interesting novel. Still, I wouldn’t put it all the way up there with the nines and tens. Therefore:

Evaluation: 7/10.

German title: Eine iranische Liebesgeschichte zensieren.
Spanish title: Una historia iraní de amor y censura.
Caution: The Germans spell his surname ‘Mandanipur’, while the Spanish keep the Surname but transcribe the forename as ‘Shahriyar’.

The book was originally written in Farsi, but published in the English translation.