This book presents three distinct stories, and satisfactorily resolves none of them—but the writing itself was beautiful, and fictional Shahriar was a truly likable character.
Boy, did I ever have mixed feelings about this one.
I really wanted to like it. I expected to like it. But despite everything, whenever I put it down, I found myself reluctant to pick it up again. (I was equally reluctant to write this review—I finished the book almost a month ago!)
The book had a lot going for it. Shahriar is a wonderful character. He’s a truly thoughtful and deliberate writer with an honest love for literature and art, a reason for every choice he makes, and a surprisingly, delightfully irreverent sense of humor. The glimpses into Iran’s culture, history, and artistic tradition were fascinating. The language was poetic and richly metaphorical, with some poignant thoughts on writing, censorship, and reality. The format itself was unlike anything I’ve seen before: Shahriar’s introspection and narration appear in plain text, while the story of Sara and Dara is set in bold, and the discarded or self-censored portions are struck through with a horizontal line.
So what gives? Why doesn’t the book rate any higher than three stars?
I can identify a few reasons. Foremost among them is that none of the book’s three separate narratives are brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The last page is a guillotine that simply descends and murders them, abruptly and all at once. I’d already started to disconnect from the book by that point, but was still planning to give it four stars. The final, unexpected disappointment of the ending knocked it down another full star. Be prepared for that, if you decide to give this book a go (despite everything, I’m not saying you shouldn’t).
Another issue is the metaphorical language I mentioned earlier. Fictional Shahriar stresses over and over that Iranian literature has developed a vital dependence upon metaphor and allusion, and this book certainly demonstrates that dependence. Sometimes the basis of the metaphor is explained. Sometimes it isn’t. As a stupid American, I am of course not fluent in the language of Iranian literary metaphor, so although I found the writing beautiful at face value, I also suspect that some of its nuance was lost on me.
On a related note, I’m not a big fan of magical realism, which comes into play more and more as the book progresses, particularly when the government censor character, Mr. Petrovich, is involved.
Finally, the actual story of Sara and Dara’s relationship is just…boring! It’s entirely possible—perhaps even probable—that this was intentional on Mandanipour’s part, an illustration of the detrimental effect censorship can have on the quality of a work of art. The story is more interesting by far when the deleted portions are taken into account. But even still, Sara and Dara are fairly one-dimensional, with little development to speak of aside from their interactions and motivations growing increasingly bizarre.
So, the real question. Would I recommend this book?
I think I would, with the caveat that you go into it prepared. Things start to fall apart around the halfway mark, and the ending is baffling. But the book’s use of language is artful, and it has inspired me to seek out more books by Iranians and about Iran. Despite its shortcomings, I think those aspects make it worth a read.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, Sara Khalili
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Iranian writer Shahriar (a fictional alter-ego of the book's actual author) sets out to write a love story. But his protagonists, Sara and Dara, are unable to carry on a straightforward relationship because Iran's Campaign Against Social Corruption strictly forbids unmarried men and women from associating with one another; Sara and Dara therefore communicate and fall in love by trading messages hidden in library books, and speaking largely in literary metaphor. And Shahriar himself is unable to write their story in a straightforward way, lest he face censorship or even punishment by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The book therefore presents us with three distinct stories: the story of Sara and Dara as it will be published; the story of Sara and Dara as Shahriar wishes to write it, including portions he crosses out himself, knowing they will not pass censorship; and the story of Shahriar himself, his history as a writer, and his process as he writes this newest work.