From one of Iran’s most acclaimed and controversial contemporary writers, his first novel to appear in English—a dazzlingly inventive work of fiction that opens a revelatory window onto what it’s like to live, to love, and to be an artist in today’s Iran.
The novel entwines two equally powerful narratives. A writer named Shahriar—the author’s fictional alter ego—has struggled for years against the all-powerful censor at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Now, on the threshold of fifty, tired of writing dark and bitter stories, he has come to realize that the “world around us has enough death and destruction and sorrow.” He sets out instead to write a bewitching love story, one set in present-day Iran. It may be his greatest challenge yet.
Beautiful black-haired Sara and fiercely proud Dara fall in love in the dusty stacks of the library, where they pass secret messages to each other encoded in the pages of their favorite books. But Iran’s Campaign Against Social Corruption forbids their being alone together. Defying the state and their disapproving parents, they meet in secret amid the bustling streets, Internet cafés, and lush private gardens of Tehran.
Yet writing freely of Sara and Dara’s encounters, their desires, would put Shahriar in as much peril as his lovers. Thus we read not just the scenes Shahriar has written but also the sentences and words he’s crossed out or merely imagined, knowing they can never be published.
Laced with surprising humor and irony, at once provocative and deeply moving, Censoring an Iranian Love Story takes us unforgettably to the heart of one of the world’s most alluring yet least understood cultures. It is an ingenious, wholly original novel—a literary tour de force that is a triumph of art and spirit.
"Wheatfields or Apple Orchards": An Essay by Shahriar Mandanipour
At book readings, authors are often asked, Why do you write? One says, I write to inform and enlighten people. Another explains, I write because it is my socio-political responsibility. One more declares, I write for myself. Yet another suggests, I write for the sake of literature and the beauty of language. And one writer dares, I write to achieve immortality. Their many different answers each contain a story, because they are storytellers. And I, too, have a story of my own.
I need to begin back in fourth grade. Until then, my mother would always write my school compositions for me. But one day when I came home for lunch, she had gone out, and I was forced, for the very first time, to write my composition myself. In Iran, it is customary for teachers to select the subject of composition assignments based on the season of the year. At the time, it was Autumn—describe the Fall, instructed the teacher. I had little time before the afternoon school session began, and so I sat down to write. After struggling through the first few sentences, suddenly I saw myself writing words that I had never thought of before. Furiously, I wrote of a field whose wheat stalks have turned golden and are ready to be harvested. I wrote of a shepherd sitting in the shade of a tree and playing his flute while his sheep bleat and graze nearby. In this vein, I wrote and wrote until suddenly I realized I needed to hurry back to school.
Before that afternoon, whenever the teacher made me read my compositions in front of the class, I had mostly received a B or B-minus. But on this day, I was sure I would earn an A-plus. For the very first time, I shot up my hand to read my composition. I read of the melody of the shepherd’s flute, of how happy the sheep are, and of the golden wheatfield that is ready for the harvest. But as soon as I read this sentence, the teacher started to growl. "Wheatfields are not harvested in the Autumn!" she shouted. I continued to read anyway. I was proud of the words I had written, about how the wind blows in the golden wheatfield, and about how the golden wheat stalks, ready, eager, to be plowed, to dance. "You stupid boy, wheatfields are not plowed in the autumn," she snapped again. She gave me a C-minus.
Years have passed since that day. I have published ten volumes of short stories and novels. I have managed to cross over the walls of a sterner censorship than my teacher’s that afternoon in Iran. And now that I have also crossed over the threshold of fifty, I know how I’d answer that question about why I write. I write to bring a wheatfield to harvest in my own words, in my own autumn. If I have succeeded, or will succeed, it will be because perhaps there are some who may benefit from the crop. Each grain of wheat is a word and each word a grain toward a story. In the Islamic account of Adam and Eve, the two are driven from heaven to earth after eating not an apple but grains of wheat. What the first pair of lovers ate in Eden eat isn’t important. What is important is for each of us—all the storytellers of the world—to bring our own apple orchards, or wheatfields, to harvest, in our own time and our own seasons.
Perhaps there will be those who will eat from them, and are driven to heaven. —Shahriar Mandanipour
(Translated from the Farsi by Sara Khalili)
The first of Mandanipour's novels to appear in English follows an ambitious but censored Iranian writer as he attempts to write a Nobel-caliber love story that will pass the censors' inspection. As a professional writer, narrator Shahriar has known his censor, nicknamed Pofiry Petrovich, for long enough that he can anticipate his objections. Shahriar's work in progress, which unfolds as a subnarrative within the novel, concerns Dara and Sara, teenagers named after prerevolutionary Iranian children's book characters, as they explore sexual and emotional love in a nation that forbids physical or social interaction between young people of the opposite sex. As the couple's love grows, the self-censoring writer strikes out whole passages in anticipation of his censor's objections. All the while, the writer converses with his censor, his characters, the reader and himself to create an intriguing postmodern, multifaceted romance steeped in Iranian culture. Kudos to Khalili for a wonderfully fluid translation of an intricately layered text. (May)
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