Censorship is an endlessly fascinating subject; a puzzle box, a Russian nesting doll in which the writer’s truth is buried and often lost. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1953 classic “The Captive Mind” revealed the insidious and creative ways that censorship enters and inhabits the mind of the artist. Shahriar Mandanipour, an Iranian film critic and the editor of a literary journal in Iran, was not allowed to publish fiction from 1992 to 1997. He came to the United States in 2006. “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” is his first book published in English. In this novel, a writer (also named Shahriar Mandanipour and the author’s alter ego) tries to write the story of Sara and Dara, a young couple in love, and finds himself in a metaphorical burka. He is forced to change his story, characters and dialogue to comply with the restrictions of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the person of a Dostoevskian character, Mr. Petrovich.
“I am an Iranian writer tired of writing dark and bitter stories,” he tells his reader, “stories populated by ghosts and dead narrators with predictable endings of death and destruction. I am a writer who at the threshold of fifty has understood that the purportedly real world around us has enough death and destruction and sorrow, and that I did not have the right to add even more defeat and hopelessness to it with my stories.” The key word here is, of course, “purportedly.”
Censorship, seen as its own art form, is just another way of messing with reality. It’s hard enough to generate one’s own ideas without having someone else’s superimposed over them, but the fictional Mandanipour tries. Nonetheless, things are crossed out, political and sexual, that will prevent his book from being published. He finds soaring metaphors to replace simple, yet offensive actions. “In each other’s eyes they read many unspoken and unthinkable words,” begins one section, and then the following, crossed out: “words of repressed yearnings and desires. And in each other’s eyes they see images of forbidden words, words such as ‘kiss,’ ‘pomegranate,’ ‘milk and honey,’ and ‘oyster.’ ” He writes a love story that is convincingly, achingly impossible in a place where men and women cannot even look at each other in public. The effect (as every good Victorian understood) is deliriously sensual prose. Even Mr. Petrovich falls in love with the woman in the story. She is that unrealistic. He asks the writer if he could somehow meet her. “No,” says Mandanipour, “If you wanted, for example, to meet Anna Karenina, I could perhaps find a way, but. . . . “
The point here is that the whole endeavor is ridiculous and the people who impose these laws are fools. The only thing a writer can do is treat the censorship like a new form, a villanelle or a sonnet. Dara’s initial declaration of love for Sara is encoded in a banned book, “The Blind Owl.” Dara places purple dots under certain letters to spell out his message. This playfulness, the simple recognition of language as code and symbol, has exactly the opposite effect intended by the censors: “It is thus that Iranian writers have become the most polite, the most impolite, the most romantic, the most pornographic, the most political, the most socialist realist, and the most postmodern writers in the world.” Mandanipour acknowledges that there are many kinds of censorship, for example the cultural censorship exerted by feminists over text they find offensive, or the intellectual censorship of critics. He faces many practical challenges to please his gatekeepers, for example, how to create a foul-mouthed thug without using foul language. Sometimes he uses stream of consciousness and other tricks to throw his censor off the scent. “With this method, I hope to softly tiptoe around the walls of Mr. Petrovich’s cleverness and arrive at the wide-open plains of my reader’s imagination and intelligence.”
While the writer is fascinated and forced to be creative, the lovers are frustrated and afraid. They begin to argue. “How can you keep silent when they have forced this headscarf on my head?” Sara asks, her words redacted. Mandanipour’s story begins to fall apart. “The characters are each playing a different tune without being able to collectively create symphonic harmony. I have to think of something. I have to do something.” The writer has traveled too far on the thin branch of irony. In an effort to understand his captor (for that is what the censor effectively becomes), he loses control of his story. But only for a moment. In making Mr. Petrovich fall in love with Sara, Mandanipour has triumphed. A “perfect and beautiful story,” he warned his censor, “is the most dangerous story.”
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.