By Shahriar Mandanipour Translated from Farsi by Sara Khalili Little, Brown, 293pp, £14.99 Review by FIONA ATHERTON
HOW DO YOU WRITE A LOVE story in a country where a love affair is barely allowed to begin? An Iranian proverb describes girls and boys as "like cotton and fire" which "if left alone, will destroy not only themselves but their house and home as well". For that reason, few love stories begin, fewer survive, still fewer are told, and next-to-none receive a publishing permit. Shahriar Mandanipour's full-length novel, then, is intriguing even before its first page.
First, though, a few distancing postmodern veils to dance through. The lovers, Dara and Sara, bear the same names as the two main characters in morality tales for children produced by the Iranian authorities. And later, Mandanipour appears as a fictional character himself.
Dara and Sara – she's in her early twenties and already has a suitor, he's single and in his thirties – meet on a demonstration in Tehran. From the start, their courtship is necessarily as steeped in deception and danger as it is in passion.
They pass messages to one another via books and risk "whispering computer chats" in internet cafes, even using the chaos of a hospital's A&E department as a way simply to sit together undetected. Elsewhere, a young couple gravitate to a graveyard as the "stage for their sin". The irony throughout is that no sin is being committed. Only in the imaginations of the anti-corruption officials are cotton and fire actually touching. In reality, the couple only "sat on the grave of the boy's mother and quietly talked".
Imagination, for Mandanipour, is about the space between reality and perception. It is the "…" of Iranian literature, when author leaves reader to imagine the rest, and the censor invariably decides that readers cannot be trusted to do so and gets out his scissors. The censors (in this case, a Mr Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment) are well-versed in the tricks writers employ to secure a publishing permit, but they are the ones with the crude imaginations.
Mandanipour was unable to publish fiction in his native country between 1992 and 1997 due to censorship, and his treatment of the absurd situation is disarmingly comic. There is the blind censorship adviser, who has his assistants pause each frame of a film and describe to him the action so that he can make his judgment; the suggestion from Mr Petrovich that the only way of having Ulysses published in Farsi would be to have Molly Bloom's final soliloquy translated into a little-known language such as Italian. There is masses of clever, dark humour here, in what could easily have been a thoroughly bleak novel. After all, this is a country where human beings may be deleted as easily as words, and where everyday is a day "on which a group of people (are] killed for freedom".
The fictional Mandanipour dreams of writing a "bright love story in which there is no sorrow, no hearts suffer, not even the tip of a pencil breaks". Instead, the official version of Dara and Sara's love story (for Mr Petrovich's eyes) is set in bold text (with the censor's annotations visible), while the fictional narrator Mandanipour adds his commentary in roman. That unofficial, disallowed account of a writer struggling to be published quickly subsumes the love story, and perhaps this is a slight failing: whether the fictional author is able to tell his story soon becomes the sole preoccupation of the reader, rather than the fate of Dara and Sara, which seems sealed from the start.
There are other elements that are troublesome and overdone. While the visible marks of censorship and fictional author's commentary are a neat and effective trick, things get ridiculous. Dara rises up against his creator and protests, "You shouldn't have written me like this," while the fictional figure of Mandanipour reminds us time and time again that he is in control of his characters' fate. In a cringe-worthy moment, one of Gogol's characters even appears to ask if anybody has seen the thief who stole his cloak. Intertextuality. Metafiction. Fragmentation. That's postmodernism. We get it. It is not a tool with which to clobber readers over the head.
That said, what does come across in this absorbing and unique novel is the depth of feeling for words and stories in Iran. As the imagined Mandanipour tells the students of his writing workshop, "if you cannot live for one day without writing one sentence, if without writing you cannot sleep … then welcome to the prestigious world of the Iranian story." In a country where ill-advised words can cost you your life, they assume an importance and power that is almost impossible to grasp in a free society.