Intricate, Beautiful, and Censored

Censoring an IranianI hate censorship. I have since I first learned what it was. As a kid who loved to read, who read way above grade level, I hated it when people even tried to tell me that books were “too old” for me. Books for kids my age were too easy and I’d read all the ones I was interested in. So the idea that people might say that I shouldn’t have access to a book at all? That was unacceptable.

Shahriar Mandianipour’s novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, therefore, presents something of a nightmare scenario for me, both as a reader and now as a writer. Yet the world he portrays, the censorship he depicts, is highly complex, and Mandianipour takes a very nuanced and fascinating approach.

In the novel, a well-respected Iranian writer decides he wants to write a love story set in Tehran, a love story that will be uplifting instead of tragic. The story he tries to write is presented in bold in the book, with occasional lines or even whole paragraphs crossed out (though still readable) when he realizes that they will not make it past the censors. In the non-bold text the author protagonist narrates his own struggles to write the story – as well as parts of the story he doesn’t even consider putting into the book itself.

But everything starts to get muddled quickly. For one thing, it’s hard to write a love story that would get official approval in world where men and women aren’t even allowed to see one another in a public library, where people have considered enacting rules that forbid them to walk on the same side of the street. Any time that the two protagonists interact at all, they are breaking some sort of rule.

Even worse, the author in the novel finds it hard to write at all since he can’t help but second guess everything he puts down: Would this be approved? Would that line cause offense? Would this part get him into trouble? As a writer, I can appreciate the impossible task of having someone else in your head when you write, particularly a critic, and worst of all a critic like Mr. Petrovich, the head censor, a meticulous and devout man with whom the author in the novel has a strained yet oddly intimate relationship.

Even though he is uncompromising to the point of being irrational and fanatic, Mr. Petrovich is not an unsympathetic character, exactly. At the very least, the protagonist finds him fascinating. He doesn’t hate books or literature, he simply doesn’t understand why authors can’t write good and proper novels that are in perfect accord with the ideals of the revolution. Yet as the book continues, readers watch as this particular author who set out trying to write a simple, uplifting story loses control of his characters as they clamor to have depth and history and agency, to demonstrate their capacity for anger and frustration and complicated views of the world. In other words, to be like real people.

But there is no place for real people in the world envisioned by the post-revolution Iranian system. The novel is unflinching in its depiction of a society set up to deny reality in favor of an ideal, a rigid system that tries to force the world to become what the system thinks it should be already. When it comes to art, it doesn’t matter if things do happen; it matters only if they should. Everything must be in line ideologically. And while Mr. Petrovich can be occasionally budged on one or two well-argued points, he can never be moved.

There are so many layers to this novel, so many tangled threads that together produce a beautiful if tragic tapestry. Everything is connected somehow in this book, and the result is a fascinating picture of modern-day Iran with plenty to mull over for years to come. It’s short and easy to read, but the ideas it raises and the emotions it evokes give it a hefty weight. Moreover, the prose is absolutely beautiful, and it touches on so many issues and works on so many levels, that I would honestly recommend it to anyone.

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