When a story comes to an Iranian writer’s mind, he or she is doomed to think of two different versions: the story as it is, and a bowdlerised version that might avoid the scissors of official censorship. The latter is the one that will be submitted to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which vets all books before publication; but this is just the beginning of the odyssey for the poor writer.
In his first novel to be translated into English, Shahriar Mandanipour, who moved to the US in 2006 but had previously published dozens of stories in Iran, puts both versions in one book. In this playful tale, both writer and censor appear as fictional characters; while for his lovers Mandanipour has chosen Sara and Dara, jaunty figures familiar from first-grade textbooks that were pulped after the Islamic Revolution.
Dara first sees Sara in a public library, where she is looking for a copy of The Blind Owl, a banned novel by the acclaimed Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat. He falls in love with her, and poses as a street pedlar to sell her the book. When she reads Hedayat’s novel, Sara notices a collection of purple dots – Dara has left her a message in code. The lovers use the technique to exchange letters, as first Dara and then Sara borrow from the library The Little Prince, Dracula, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and more, until they meet up for the first time on a street protest in front of Tehran University.
As their love story progresses, Mandanipour elucidates the history of censorship in Iran, dating back hundreds of years to the intricate metaphors and complicated allegories employed by such poets as Rumi, Hafez and Khayam. However, it was only with the Islamic Revolution that censorship became official. Under this regime it could take the ministry weeks, months or sometimes years to respond to a manuscript; and this response would range from a simple yes or no to a detailed list of contested chapters, dialogues, sentences or even individual words.
In Mandanipour’s novel, the ministry censor, Mr Petrovich – named after the detective in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – argues with the author about words and phrases he wants removed from the story on the grounds that they might sexually arouse readers, harm Islamic values, endanger national security or ignite revolution. “He underlines every word, every sentence, every paragraph, or even every page that is indecent and that endangers public morality and the time-honoured values of the society.” In a further complication, Mr Petrovich has gradually fallen in love with Sara while censoring her story, and is now trying to persuade the author to kill Dara off and leave the field open for himself.
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.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story | Saeed Kamali Dehghan | The Guardian | August 2009