In what now reads like an eerie echo of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman cut down by a bullet during this month’s election protests and captured on video, the Iranian author of this new novel foresees the possible death of his heroine in the streets of Tehran: “The girl does not know that in precisely seven minutes and seven seconds, at the height of the clash between the students, the police, and the members of the Party of God, in the chaos of attacks and escapes, she will be knocked into with great force, she will fall back, her head will hit against a cement edge, and her sad Oriental eyes will forever close.”
Her fellow students, “aware that they are about to be attacked, break into a heartrending anthem:
My fellow schoolmate,
you are with me and beside me,
… you are my tear and my sigh,
... the scars of the lashes of tyranny rest on our bodies.”
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour — an Iranian writer who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard — is, at once, a novel about two young Iranians trying to conduct a covert romance in Tehran; a postmodern account of the efforts of their creator — or his fictional alter ego — to grapple with the harsh censorship rules of his homeland; and an Escher-like meditation on the interplay of life and art, reality and fiction.
Although Mandanipour’s 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 mullahs’ rule, and the myriad ways in which the Islamic government’s strict edicts on everything from clothing to relationships between the sexes permeate daily life.
The novel provides a darkly comic view of the Kafkaesque absurdities of living in a country where movies could be subject to review by a blind censor (in her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi wrote about the same blind, or nearly blind, censor); where records of enrollment at a university can be so thoroughly erased by authorities that a student can come to doubt even his own name.
In fact, at its best, Censoring an Iranian Love Story becomes a kind of Kundera-like rumination on philosophy and politics, exploring the nervous interface between the public and the private in a totalitarian state, even as it playfully investigates the possibilities and limits of storytelling.
Mandanipour’s two central characters, Sara and Dara, are both virgins — she is 22, and he is 30-something — and naive about courtship, never mind the mysteries of sex and love. They must contend with the watchful eyes of parents and nosy neighbors, and also with those of the ever-present morality police, who patrol the city, looking for unmarried couples, public signs of affection, dress-code violations, signs of Westernization. Dara has already served time in prison for selling and renting illegal videos of movies by Western filmmakers like Altman, Kubrick and Welles.
Dara courts Sara by leaving hidden messages for her in library books — he places little purple dots under certain letters in certain words, which she must then decode. Eventually the two contrive to meet in places like a museum, a movie theater and even a hospital emergency room, where they can steal a few moments of conversation.
While Sara finds herself falling for Dara, she is also considering the marriage proposal of a well-to-do entrepreneur named Sinbad, whom her family wants her to marry. Sinbad is not an unappealing figure, and his wealth would enable her to help her relatives and buy the freedom to travel to the West.
While recounting the adventures of his characters, Mandanipour also shares the travails of being an Iranian writer. He says he is “tired of writing dark and bitter stories, stories populated by ghosts and dead narrators with predictable endings of death and destruction,” but while he wants to tell a love story, he knows that this is not easy in a country where a censor scours books for “immoral and corruptive words and phrases”
that might pollute readers’ minds, and where “there is a politico-religious presumption that any proximity and discourse between a man and a woman who are neither married nor related is a prologue to deadly sin.”
He tells us about the linguistic acrobatics required to circumvent the censors; the complexities of censorship in Iran, where there is a literary tradition of using ornate metaphors and similes for bodily and sexual attributes (including lots of fruit, flower and food imagery); and the government’s reported use of Western computer software to identify the authors of literary works published under pseudonyms.
As the novel progresses, the author’s relationship with a censor who works under the alias of Porfiry Petrovich (the name of the magistrate in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) grows increasingly complicated, as does his relationship with his own characters, who, he suggests, have begun to escape his control.
Some of Mandanipour’s efforts to inject his story with surreal, postmodern elements feel
distinctly strained (the intermittent appearances of a hunchbacked midget, in particular, are annoying), but he’s managed, by the end, to build a clever Rubik’s 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.
Sept. 28 to Oct . 4 A large number of 3000-year-old slate coffins were unearthed on a hill near Nanhe Village (南和村) in Pingtung County on Sept. 30, 1985. Unfortunately, the United Daily News (聯合報) noted that they had been seriously damaged by construction, and no artifacts or human remains were found. Although the newspaper called the find a “significant discovery,” little information can be gleaned about this specific site because it’s just one of countless locations where stone sarcophagi have been unearthed across southern and eastern Taiwan, and as north as Yilan County. These stone receptacles for the dead were
Until this summer, when the idea of hiking the length of the island first occurred to me, I didn’t even know that Cijin (旗津) had been a peninsula until 1967. That’s when diggers and dredgers severed Cijin from Taiwan’s “mainland,” because the authorities wished to create a southern entrance to Kaohsiung’s fast expanding port. The island is just under 9km long, but a bit of research quickly convinced me that a south-to-north trek wasn’t a good idea. The southern third of Cijin is dominated by container-lifting cranes, warehouses and other facilities off-limits to the public. Dunhe Street (敦和街) forms the boundary between
Sitting at the bar, martini in hand, Kristin Scott Thomas rolls her eyes briefly heavenwards. And then she declares, in one of the most memorable monologues of the cult BBC drama Fleabag, that menopause is the “most wonderful fucking thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get fucking hot and no one cares. But then — you’re free! No longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person, in business.” When an entranced Fleabag says she has been told the whole thing is horrendous, Scott Thomas’s character responds: “It is horrendous,
As if the climbs and views and snacks and companions of cycling in Taiwan aren’t sufficient, the GPS-generation of route-planners are now using apps such as Strava and Endomondo to create works of art as they ride. One such is nicknamed the Dove Road of Sijhih (汐鴿路), a 25km ride that follows the riverside bike path from the Nangang-Neihu Bridge (南湖橋) to New Taipei City’s Sijhih District (汐止), climbs around 400m up the Sijhih-Shiding Road (汐碇路), before dropping back down past Academia Sinica to generate a very dove-like pattern. Originally called Kippanas by indigenous Ketagalan people and transliterated into Hoklo (more commonly