In an early essay on censorship, Salman Rushdie, himself no stranger to the wrath of censorious regimes, warns that the “most insidious effect of censorship is that, in the end, it can deaden the imagination of the people.” All the more reason, then, to reassert the importance of the novel, of poetry, of literature. There is a fine literary tradition of defiance, of rebellion in the face of oppression: Anna Akhmatova’s later poems, Albert Camus’ essay L’homme revolte, Isaac Babel’s short stories – to mention but a few. For English-speaking readers, a bold new voice has been added to this list: the Iranian novelist Shahriar Mandanipour, whose novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story is his first book translated into English.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story essentially tells two stories. What makes this so unique is that Mandanipour unravels them simultaneously; interwoven, they are distinguished only in terms of typography; one appears in bold type, the other in regular. The love story of Sara and Dara, young lovers-to-be who meet during a student riot in Tehran, is at the center of the novel, but around it orbits the story of how to get it published in accordance with the rules of Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. As a result, sections of the novel often read as non-fiction, the typescript of a lecture on Iranian literary and political history. This would have been less interesting were it not for Mandanipour’s engaging wit and ability to illuminate the many absurdities of the totalitarian authorities. In this regard, his quest to publish something as mundane as a love story becomes a Kafkaesque one:
The Trial and The Castle loom heavily in this book.
But so do many of works of literature, for that matter. Throughout the novel appear sentences such as “Now surely, with an Unbearable Lightness of curiosity you want to ask…” or “I was just another young man with Great Expectations of my future…” Such mischievous little bursts may be dismissed as mere trickery, but considering Sara and Dara’s first way of communicating was by dotting the letters in great literary works at a Tehran library, clandestine literary references attain a significant potency. It comes as no surprise that among the most frequently referred to is the work of Milan Kundera:
The next book was Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was impossible for this politico-erotic novel to be among the books at the library…
…like Mr. Clementis, a persona non-grata whom Soviet censors air-brushed out of a photograph, yet the hat he had lent to a man posing with him remained on that person’s head.
This last reference does not directly mention Kundera or any of his works, but surely it cannot be a coincidence that Mandanipour refers to the example of Mr. Clementis, an example which memorable appears early in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, followed almost immediately by the unforgettable sentence: “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Like Clementis’s hat, visible evidence of what was so treacherously removed, Mandanipour applies yet another typographical trick to further elaborate Iranian censorship. Throughout the novel one encounters sentences that are cleverly struck through the middle with a line; though they have been ‘censored’ they are still visible and legible to the reader. Thus we are permitted to read sections of the book not permitted in Iran. For example: “That day, Sara went home from the university far more quickly than usual. She closed the door to her room,
lay down on her bed, and began reading the book from the beginning.”
Already, since its publication in May, Censoring an Iranian Love Story has acquired a great deal more urgency than it may have otherwise. Considering the events of the past summer, a sentence such as “since the founding of the first university, getting beaten up and thrown in jail have always been among the required credits for students” becomes doubly significant. As such, it is a novel that has all the fervor and brilliance to become a Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, of the new Iranian revolution, just as Kundera’s postmodern masterpieces were in the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution twenty years ago.
About the author:
Morten Hoi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has studied literature and creative writing at the University of Kent in Canterbury and the University of Miami in Florida. From 2008 to 2009 he was chief editor of Mangrove, the creative writing journal of the University of Miami. He is an associate member of the PEN American Center and maintains a website www.mhjensen.com