three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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A-Censoring an Iranian Love StoryCensorship prevented Shahriar Mandanipour, an award-winning Iranian novelist and short story writer, from publishing his fiction in his native country during most of the 1990s. Since 2006, he has been teaching in the United States, where he is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard. Censoring is his first major work in English translation.

The Story: An ambitious novelist named Shahriar Mandanipour is having a difficult time writing a simple love story-not due to writer's block, but because of the government censor, nicknamed Porfiry Petrovich (the detective after Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). Not surprisingly, his love story barely gets off the ground as he rewrites scenes and crosses out "offensive" dialogue between his would-be lovers: Sara, a middle-class university student, and Dara, a former political prisoner, who fall in love at the library, where they encode secret messages in their books. Their explorations of love in a country that forbids public interactions between young men and women play out-or don't-against the country's repressive culture and history.
Knopf. 295 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780307269782

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Some readers may find Censoring an Iranian Love Story too cute with its abundance of wink-wink tricks. But like some stylishly innovative movies (Brazil and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind leap to mind), the form is essential to the work's overall meaning." Trenton Daniel

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If you're looking for a tale of love triumphing over all obstacles (and by gum, are there obstacles) or a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet, seek elsewhere. If you like the intellectual challenge of the metafiction of J.M. Coetzee or Paul Auster, or the sheer spiraling loopiness of Charlie Kaufman films such as Adaptation, then grab a copy and prepare to enjoy a meditation on culture, modern Iran, and the power of what is left out." Yvonne Zipp

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Some of Mr. Mandanipour's efforts to inject his story with surreal, postmodern elements feel distinctly strained (the intermittent appearances of a hunchbacked midget, in particular, are annoyingly gratuitous and contrived), but he's managed, by the end of the book, 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." Michiko Kakutani

New Yorker 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One of the great successes of this book is how thoroughly it persuades the reader that a novel about censorship could not help also being a novel about fiction-making; and it thus brings a political gravity to a fictive self-consciousness sometimes abused by the more weightless postmodernism. ... One problem with the form of the novel, however, is that Mandanipour's unofficial authorial commentary is soon of greater interest to the reader than the official love story." James Wood

Critical Summary

Critics agree that Censoring is a tour de force-for the right reader. The novel is not a traditional love story; rather, it is a postmodern metafiction that, with its convoluted narration and literary high jinks, reminded a few of Charlie Kaufman's film Adaptation (with nods to Barthes and Borges). Readers become privy to Mandanipour's crossed-out lines, which provide a sense of the country's strict edicts. But even without the additional lines, Censoring is powerful in its exploration of Islamic repression and tyranny. The New Yorker and others commented that despite the author's inventive portrayal of censorship, the novel as a whole is too self-conscious and clever in its execution. But perhaps that is the point: as the author's fictional alter ego makes clear, "publishing a love story in Iran is not a simple undertaking."