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.