I must share this extraordinary book that I recently discovered by accident.
The book tells the tale of a writer who writes an Iranian love story. Supposedly, this is a country where unmarried lovers cannot be alone together: in one scene, the couple, Dara & Sara, has a date in a hospital emergency room, where they will not be noticed amidst the chaos. The writer also contemplates a date scene in the cemetery because that is the least likely of date places. At the same time the writer is being questioned by the censor (all this happens as some sort of internal conversation in his head) for introducing bad ideas to young people by showing them how to dodge scrutiny to commit “immoral acts”.
As he writes the story, the writer battles with himself, constantly anticipating what may be seen as “immoral” and censored by the authorities. When the censors replace an offensive word with “…” (the ellipse), it gives rise to unintended consequences. As the writer explains, when the reader encounters the “infamous” three dots, he is no longer within the control of the writer nor the censor, and the reader’s imagination roams unbridled as to what the three dots represent:
It is thus that Iranian writers have become the most polite, the most impolite, the most romantic, the most pornographic, the most political, the most socialist realist, and the most postmodern writers in the world.
The book goes back and forth from the writer’s created characters, his own consciousness to his encounters with the ministry’s censor, Mr Petrovich (named after one of Dostoevsky’s characters). The writer explains the complicated censorship history in Iran and the some times over-the-top similes fashioned by long dead Iranian poets as a way of dancing between the line separating the divine and the carnal. That, he explains, is why “Iranian literature, which is quite rich, is so difficult to translate and to read.” The author illustrates this point with samplings of the great Sufi poets’ writings, weaving them into his story of Dara & Sara – in some ways it is almost like an introduction to ancient Persian literature.
Would a person who thinks he lives in a place with much freedom find this book relevant? I truly believe that censorship or self-censorship is just as pervasive any where. We are all affected in some way with what is considered as politically correct or socially acceptable. Social norms subtly dictate us to behave or express ourselves in a way that make us more amenable to others. In Dara & Sara’s case, the writer may have dealt with this issue when he agonised over who was supposed to call whom after a lovers’ quarrel:
if I write that Sara dials Dara’s number first, there is a chance some hard-line Iranian feminists, who bear no resemblance to Iran’s true activist feminists and who scare me very much, will pull their headscarves down over their uncombed hair that they have not washed in a week, and… say “See! despite all your cunning, you finally revealed your male chauvinism, Mr. Writer”… As you may have guessed, I am introducing you to another world of censorship, one that is even more powerful than Mr. Petrovich and all the employees and bureaus of his ministry.
I hope I’m not giving the impression that this is a tough book to read. It is actually the opposite. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour (translated into English by Sara Khalili) is witty and enigmatic. And full of surprises. It’s been a while since I have read such a beautifully written book.