Sunday, November 14, 2010
Censoring an Iranian Love Story, a self-reflexive satire about the IRI-imposed postmodernism of the contemporary culture
This is a book by a rising figure in Iran's "third-generation" novelists. The 53 year old author is Shahriar Mandanipour, whose books, nine of them, saw a brief window of opportunity during the reformist era of Khatami's presidency (but were banned until then and afterward). Two years after the crowning of Ahmadinejad and his cultural assassins, Mandanipour gave up living in Iran. An American university (Brown) has provided him (and many other international writers) a fellowship to write free of fear of persecution.
I picked Censoring an Iranian Love Story two days ago, because of the riveting reviews (such as this one by James Wood in the New Yorker) and read it with a hawkish scrutiny.
The book is about the struggles of a writer who wants to write a simple love story, but on the one hand the Censor's office limits his literary creativity, and on the other hand the Morality police prevents a realist love story from happening in Tehran. Despite several scenes of magic-realism and surrealism, the book is a mini- documentary/history, and most of its stories and references are real.
The realism of the book is so dominant that I was tempted to give up reading a few times. Not because I didn't think it was interesting, but because it was not new for me as an Iranian. I found it contrived at times. The nagging back-translation (to Persian) in my head annoyed me. The book seemed like a hodgepodge (آش شله قلمکار): pretentious postmodern narrative, with the omniscient voice of the author working constantly to distanciate (borrowing from Brecht) the reader from the "love story" and creating layers and layers of auxiliary stories and explanations of that which constitutes the paradoxes of contemporary Iranian culture. Reading the book, I kept thinking of a conversation I had with a young friend who was curious about Iran and I thought the book should have been called: All you wanted to know about Iran but were afraid to ask.
At times, reading the book felt as being forced to browse through an "Iran for dummies" manual. At other times, I felt forced to float in the stream of his consciousness. Plus, it often seemed to me that the writer is lecturing his wanna-be-writer readers, in a not so humble manner, on the art of narrative. I felt as if I was sitting in a boring never ending workshop or listening to an uncle on opium-high, with a broken tape recorder's zeal asking me: "Ask me, and I tell you why." A few times, I wished I had bought a Kindle version of the book (which would have cost the same 10 dollars) so I could bookmark every time this "dialogue with the reader" was forced; or so that I could count how many of his library-books he was rubbing in the reader's face (actually, it is a good reference for those who don't know what kind of world literature are found in many Iranian households). At times, the book seemed like an inventory of the titles held in a library.
Of course, all this was conducted in experimentation with narrative and even typeset stylization: The letters and words intentionally crossed out, and the reason for each crossing explained, fonts and boldness of letters varying depending which story was interleaved with which.
As much as I could understand the deliberate choices of the "artist" and wanted to empathize with and appreciate the choices, my hostility towards his pompousness (or the pompousness of his translator, Sara Khalili) could not subside, UNTIL I reached page 247 (out of 295) and I read a paragraph from the conversation between the writer (first person) and the censor:
[The Censor]: "But I want you to be able to write an Islamic love story. And if it happens to be postmodern, then all the better. In other words, for everything in it to be muddled and confused and yet for it to criticize modernism, which incites sin. Don't forget, we take no issue with posmodernism. After all it promotes a return to tradition."
It is with this sentence that my ice thawed: Mandanipour was not an eager novice who didn't know the principle of "less is more", and thus hid in postmodernist form because he could not create coherence and clarity. Rather, he was creating the farce of our contemporary culture. And the reason why I was so annoyed by him was because he was doing it so effectively, by holding a clear mirror to things that are so trivial in Iranian lives, that I accused him of resorting to cliche.
In fact, it is not true that he was unable to tell stories straight and classical. His narrative poignancy in page 232 made me fold the page for future readings, when his love-story character (Dara) lashed out at him (the writer) blaming him for his postmodern wishywashy tiptoeing and creating Dara as a sheepish character, who was pathetically deprived of life, education, job and even love because of his political acts and his moral righteousness that prohibited him from raising a shout, lifting a fist, rising to knock down the thieves who were robbing him and his country of wealth. Or on page 217 and 197 he wrote Sara's dreams about the coast of Spain or her wet imagination of a pornographic menage a trois with Dara and her new-rich, IRI-connected suitor, Sinbad as vividly as any romantic best-seller at the airport.
The book is not difficult to read, but it is full of cross-references (which he explains to some extent, to not confuse the reader too much). The core of the story is based on adaptation of characters and themes from three of the most recurrent literary masterpieces of Nizami's Khosrow and Shirin (whose narrative elements are to constitute the love-story to be written), Hedayat's The Blind Owl (whose surrealist "goormagoori" appears as a midget here, who never dies although is always killed, and haunts every single characters of this book), and Kafka's The Trial (whose various prosecutors strangulate the characters of Mandanipour's novel to-not-be-written), there are several auxiliary short stories which document realistic aspects of the life and times of Iranians.
With all this, I have to add that despite my "critiquing" attitude, I had several loud outbursts of laughter. Description of brother Atta, "the basiji who considers himself in charge of all of Iran's sexual organs" (p 284), or the gluttonous ways Persians describe love and love-making (p 28), or description of Oliver Stone's "stupid" depiction of Persian King's chamber with an Egyptian-Arabi-Indian-Iranian-Chinese decor (p 23) and many other graphical and metaphoric depictions made the book fun to read. I also have to add that when I raced to read the last pages, my heart was beating faster. Actually, I spend the entire Sunday glued to it--and only now I remembered I have to prepare for important meetings tomorrow.
Wood writes: "Perhaps we look enviously at those who have the misfortune to live in countries where literature is taken seriously enough to be censored, and writers venerated with imprisonment. What if writing were made a bit more exigent for us? What if we had less of everything? It might make our literary culture more “serious,” certainly more creatively ingenious. Instead of drowning in choice, we would have to be inventive around our thirst. Tyranny is the mother of metaphor, and all that."
I think Wood is right.