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Censoring an Iranian Love Story

Shahriar Mandanipour

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Title: Censoring an Iranian Love Story
Author: Shahriar Mandanipour
Genre: Novel
Written: (2009)
Length: 295 pages
Original in: Farsi
Availability: Censoring an Iranian Love Story - US
Censoring an Iranian Love Story - UK
Censoring an Iranian Love Story - Canada
En censurant un roman d'amour iranien - France
Eine iranische Liebesgeschichte zensieren - Deutschland
Censura - Italia
Una historia iraní de amor y censura - España
  • Farsi title: سانسور یک داستان عاشقانه ایرانی
  • Although written in Farsi, Censoring an Iranian Love Story was first published in its English translation, in 2009
  • Translated by Sara Khalili

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Our Assessment:

B : clever introduction to contemporary Iranian conditions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 29/5/2009 Yvonne Zipp
Financial Times . 13/7/2009 Adrian Turpin
FAZ . 10/4/2010 Hubert Spiegel
The Guardian A 15/8/2009 Saeed Kamali Dehghan
The Independent . 12/10/2009 Aamer Hussein
The LA Times . 2/6/2009 Susan Salter Reynolds
The National . 9/7/2009 Rayyan Al-Shawaf
NZZ A 16/3/2010 Angela Schader
New Statesman A 27/8/2009 Anita Sethi
The NY Rev. of Books . 29/4/2010 Claire Messud
The NY Times . 29/6/2009 Michiko Kakutani
The New Yorker . 29/6/2009 James Wood
The Observer . 19/7/2009 Francesca Segal
The Scotsman . 15/8/2009 Fiona Atherton
Die Zeit . 8/7/2010 Ursula März

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Self-consciously reminiscent of Milan Kundera, this is a lively account of life and letters in contemporary Iran, even if the postmodern tricksiness wears thin by the final page." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "(E)rkennbar für ein westliches Publikum geschrieben. Eine iranische Liebesgeschichte zensieren ist der ins Postmoderne gewendete, ebenso verspielte wie bitterernste Versuch, der iranischen Tragödie eine moderne Liebesgeschichte abzuringen. Aber vor allem ist dieser Roman ein Sittenbild der modernen iranischen Gesellschaft im besten Sinnes des Wortes: literarisch durchtrieben, magisch-surrealistisch aufgeladen, realistisch geerdet." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a brilliant novel about the complexities of writing and publishing in Iran. It will help to further understanding of the frustrating and sometimes perilous situation of the book industry in a country where copyright is not respected, where writers struggle desperately to publish and can be jailed simply for exercising their imaginations." - Saeed Kamali Dehghan, The Guardian

  • "The playful conceit of writing about Sara and Dara becomes tedious, and Mandanipour also relinquishes the Shirin story. Much of the novel becomes an essayistic exercise in metafiction. The reader might be reminded of Kundera's theory of the novel as a space where dream and reality, essay and autobiography, come together. But a writer must ensure that, in fiction, practice precedes theory. Mandanipour's novel, for all its dogged literariness, never makes that transition." - Aamer Hussein, The Independent

  • "Censorship, seen as its own art form, is just another way of messing with reality. It's hard enough to generate one's own ideas without having someone else's superimposed over them, but the fictional Mandanipour tries." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "When addressing the reader, he often adopts a conversational tone; when crafting passages in the tale that he hopes will escape the censorís wrath, he employs a straightforward storytelling method in the third-person narrative voice. Thanks to Sara Khalili, who translated Censoring an Iranian Love Story from the Persian, both styles emerge clear and distinct. And in both cases, Mandanipour periodically treats readers to impressive figurative language" - Rayyan Al-Shawaf, The National

  • "Eine iranische Liebesgeschichte zensieren ist eine mit bitterer Lust und scharfem Geist erledigte Demontage des von religiöser Engstirnigkeit, Korruption und Perspektivelosigkeit verkrüppelten heutigen Iran -- und gleichzeitig eine mit allen Mitteln der Erzähl- und Beschwörungskunst betriebene Restitution der Kultur, die dieses Land bis heute trägt und hält." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "This is a writer intoxicated with the possibilities of language, and his timely, well-translated book is about a potent love affair, not only with women, but also with words." - Anita Sethi, New Statemsan

  • "Although Mr. Mandanipourís literary games occasionally make this book read like a Charlie Kaufman movie script run amok, his novel leaves the reader with a harrowing sense of what it is like to live in Tehran under the mullahsí rule, and the myriad ways in which the Islamic governmentís strict edicts on everything from clothing to relationships between the sexes permeate daily life. (...) Some of Mr. Mandanipourís efforts to inject his story with surreal, postmodern elements feel distinctly strained (the intermittent appearances of a hunchbacked midget, in particular, are annoyingly gratuitous and contrived), but heís managed, by the end of the book, to build a clever Rubikís Cube of a story, while at the same time giving readers a haunting portrait of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran: arduous, demoralizing and constricted even before the brutalities of the current crackdown." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "This novel, his first major work to be translated into English, was written in Farsi but cannot be read in Iran. His book is thus acutely displaced: it had to have been written with an audience outside of Iran in mind, but in a language that this audience would mostly not understand; it depends on translation for its being, yet its being is thoroughly Iranian, lovingly and allusively so, dense with local reference. And it takes as its subject exactly these paradoxes, for it is explicitly about what can and cannot be written in contemporary Iranian fiction. (...) The first hundred pages or so of Censoring an Iranian Love Story are exciting. Mandanipourís writing is exuberant, bonhomous, clever, profuse with puns and literary-political references (.....) One problem with the form of the novel, however, is that Mandanipourís unofficial authorial commentary is soon of greater interest to the reader than the official love story" - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "It is unwieldy in parts and the frequency with which other writers' characters begin to pop up in the text is territory best left to Jasper Fforde. But it's a powerful, provocative and timely novel." - Francesca Segal, The Observer

  • "Mandanipour was unable to publish fiction in his native country between 1992 and 1997 due to censorship, and his treatment of the absurd situation is disarmingly comic. (...) That said, what does come across in this absorbing and unique novel is the depth of feeling for words and stories in Iran." - Fiona Atherton, The Scotsman

  • "Eine iranische Liebesgeschichte zensieren ist ein Experiment. Am ehesten ließe es sich als literarische Performance bezeichnen. Eine Performance, die alles, woraus ein Text besteht und womit er in Berührung kommt -- Plot und Sprache, Figuren und Leser --, in Material des Zensurvorgangs verwandelt. (...) Dass ein solcher Roman auf Irritation und Überrumpelung zielt, versteht sich von selbst. (...) Dieser Roman bedient sich literarischer Techniken und Methoden, die wir gut kennen. Wir haben sie am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts als postmodern oder dekonstruktivistisch bezeichnet, wir wurden ihrer müde, wir haben ihre Entleerung und ihren Manierismus beklagt und ihre Erschöpfung erlebt. Und es ist eindrucksvoll, zu sehen, zu welcher Lebenskraft sie erwachen, wenn die Energie politischer Notwendigkeit in sie fährt." - Ursula März, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The author is a prominent presence in Censoring an Iranian Love Story, which is more about the writing (and, yes, censoring) of the love-story of the title than anything else. The love story itself, between Sara and Dara is printed in bold type, while the author's comments and explanations are presented in regular type; in addition, a number of sentences are crossed out -- censored.
       The novel begins with university student Sara at a demonstration -- and about to meet her death. But, as he comments on these unfolding scenes, the author admits:

     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.
       So he wants to write a bona fide love story -- but:
writing and publishing a love story in my beloved Iran is not easy.
       Especially that publishing part, since books can only be sold which have been vetted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. (Note: that is not a Kafkaesque invention of Mandanipour's: such a government ministry actually exists and operates in Iran -- and does wield this great power.) In this story the man in charge of reading books and deciding their fates at the ministry goes by the alias of Porfiry Petrovich (as in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punsihment), and is more or less the author's nemesis throughout the novel. The author has already had experiences with Mr. Petrovich, as they debated passages from his first book, arguing about what could and couldn't be printed, and this one too comes under scrutiny as it evolves.
       Much of the scrutiny, however, is the author's own, as he explains along the way both the actions of Sara and Dara (in the Iranian context), and his choices of how to tell the story. Society imposes a great deal of self-censorship already -- there is little these two 'lovers' can do (certainly they can hardly become lovers ...), and the author is constantly aware that the censor's eyes will be reading these words and would not let certain things pass. As such, much of Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a primer on contemporary Iranian conditions, most notably the emphasis on segregation of the sexes and appearances of propriety. Even in the library where they first 'meet', Sara and Dara must sit in separate sections (one for men, one for women), and Dara glimpses nothing more than Sara's shoes. Even as their affair advances, the idea of holding hands or kissing is almost unthinkable, and in public they are constantly on the watch for the authorities, since it's unacceptable for an unrelated man and woman to walk together. (There is also almost no place private where they could get together.)
       Sara is a student in her early twenties; Dara had studied film but spent some years in prison and, now in his early thirties, is unemployable. Both are, of course, virgins, with essentially no experience of any sort with members of the other sex of their own age. Part of the appeal of their love story is in how they must go about it -- yet that also diminishes it to some extent: it is not always clear that they are driven by a passion for each other, or merely driven because this is the only opportunity they have to explore this mysterious thing called 'love', and which society tries at all costs to keep at bay. (Things do get a bit more interesting when a powerful but uneducated man, Sinbad, woos Sara: her family certainly approves, and Sara is tempted by the lifestyle he could offer -- and the author does not make Sinbad an outright evil person whom Dara should obviously prevail over.)
       The author finds his characters getting out of hand, as the story takes on a life of its own. So, for example, he complains:
     I have tried to dissuade Dara from what he is planning, but I have been no match for him. I see clearly how my love story is moving in a direction that I never intended. The story is falling apart.
       Even the censor, Mr. Petrovich, gets into the act in quite unexpected ways, his interest in the story taking a clever and amusing turn.
       Mandanipour's metafictional games work well enough, and are entertaining. The balance between Dara and Sara's actual story and the commentary is fine, and each is of considerable interest. And Mandanipour is honest enough (if perhaps a bit too obvious) in admitting some of the potential flaws of his approach. So, for example, Dara and Sara discuss a story they have read, by an author named Shahriar Mandanipour, and Dara calls it a "cowardly story":
The writer has played tricks to pass censorship. I don't like a writer who plays tricks. A writer who can trick the censorship apparatus can trick his readers, too.
       What bogs Censoring an Iranian Love Story down is how carefully Mandanipour explains Iranian customs and conditions. The novel is clearly written for an audience unfamiliar with almost anything about Iran -- and given some of the reactions by Americans to Iran he cites he may have good reason for getting so far down to basics. Nevertheless, it makes the book feel very much like a primer, and too carefully constructed, the narrative too obviously meant to illustrate these various aspects of Iran rather than tell a story. Books about contemporary Iran-specific conditions (see, for example, Reading Lolita in Tehran) and/or books by writers who (self-consciously) have to deal with censorship (see what seem like thousands of similar novels from the Soviet era) are, by now, all too familiar, and Mandanipour's unfortunately does not feel like anything new. Indeed, all of it feels terribly familiar: Mandanipour is playing with a very old bag of tricks, and he has trouble injecting much freshness into these techniques.
       Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a good primer, both with its literary references -- Sara and Dara bond over Hedayat's modern classic The Blind Owl, Khosrow and Shirin is used nicely throughout the novel, and the great Hooshang Golshiri (still waiting for a publishing permit for his Prince Ehtejab ...) has a cameo appearance -- and as an introduction to daily life in contemporary urban Iran. As such it is, arguably, an ideal introductory text, and a good first taste of Iranian fiction. It's just not entirely satisfying -- and feels too derivative.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2009

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Censoring an Iranian Love Story: Reviews: Shahriar Mandanipour: Other books by Shahriar Mandanipour under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Shahriar Mandanipour (شهریار مندنی پور) was born in 1957.

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