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~One of a Kind~
It's no exaggeration to say that I've read many thousands of books in my life, so much so that whilst I'm occasionally surprised by a plot or a different angle in a book, it's very rare that I find something that's truly worthy of the descriptor 'unique'. Censoring an Iranian Love Story (let me abbreviate it to CAILS) by Iranian writer Shariar Mandanipour is such a book. I can honestly say that I don't recall the last time I read something that made me think "Wow, now that really was something totally different".
It's not the plot that makes CAILS so unusual - that's pretty much the age-old story of 'boy meets girl, things go well, things go badly, it all ends up pretty much sort of ok'. There's nothing remarkable in that, I think you'd agree. It's not even a terribly easy story to follow - it jumps about all over the place, we're told things that subsequently turn out to not be true and are left confused at times. Again, this isn't the first book to do that. The book combines a fairly conventional love story with an opportunity for the author to give his views on the politics of his home country - now that's a little bit unusual. But what's really unusual and at first quite uncomfortable is the way that the author breaks the literary equivalent of the actor's 'fourth wall'.
Breaking the fourth wall in the theatre or television refers to when an actor temporarily zones out of the action on the stage, turns to the audience or the television viewer and addresses them directly. It's quite common in comedy - think Miranda Hart, Morecombe and Wise, or the wonderfully bizarre 'Mrs Brown's Boys' - and is something that Shakespeare used frequently. However, it's not something I've seen done to such extreme in a book. The author has written a book about writing a book and the actual 'story' is pretty much secondary to him talking about the process of the writing and how to get round the censors. He repeatedly requests that we ask him questions so that he can explain things - it's a tad awkward at first but I eventually got used to it. Go on and ask me this question so I can explain he requests time and again when he could of course just get on and tell us - but he wants to make the reader part of the book, dragging us in as an interlocutor. It took me a good hundred pages to get past the initial irritation of this style.
~Boy stalks (and then meets) Girl~
The story itself is quite charming. Dara (the boy) sees Sara (the girl) at a protest and in the library and starts to leave her coded messages in books long before they actually meet. He romances her from a distance through books both legal and banned, winning her attention long before they've actually met. In order to meet her he sets up a book stall in the street and has to sell many of his favourite books before he manages to meet Sara. Constrained by Iranian laws against courtship which prevent them from carrying on in ways we'd expect from a western couple, they find increasingly devious means to get together.
Sara has a suitor - a self made man of means called Sinbad - who wants to marry her and has the support of her parents. Dara by contrast has a history as a rebel. He's served time in prison as a political prisoner, he's been kicked out of university, he has few prospects. He's not the man any mother or father would want their daughter to marry. All of this is quite conventional and believable but there's a lot more that's not.
~Slash and Burn~
In parallel with the love story we get Mandanipour's thoughts on censorship and this seems to be the main purpose of the book. The love story is just a mechanism by which to illustrate his frustrations with the Iranian authorities. Sentences and phrases in the book are struck through by the author as if to self-censor his words. Of course, there's nothing like something being crossed out to make you want to read what was written there. He tells us about the power of a few full stops - ...... - to stir the imagination of the reader, showing how just a few words separated by ...... can give a reader space and freedom to fill in their own stories. He carries out discussions with a (presumably) imaginative censor by the very un-Iranian name of Petrovich, an entirely unaccidental reference to the character of a police investigator in Dostoyevsky's classic 'Crime and Punishment'. Other Russian writers are alluded to in similar but sometimes more subtle ways but if you don't spot the references, you won't really be missing out too much.
Whether Petrovich exists or is just a symbol of the power of the censors is unclear and there are various other characters who pop up in the book who are clearly in the writer's imagination. There's the ghost of a long dead poet - I'm guessing it's Hafez rather than Saadi but the poet is hinted at rather than named. There's also a deadly killer in the form of an historic Hashshashin - one of the original 'assassins' who lived in the mountains of northern Iran. Both the poet and the killer would be references that any Iranian would recognise but which are strange choices for an international novel. And this is such a novel.
There are also some quite believable but utterly bizarre characters who were some of my favourites. There's an old man who sells books on the street and makes Sara an offer she can't (but should) refuse, and my absolute favourite surreal character - the blind censor who's in charge of censoring films and television programmes which he can't actually see. And then there's the dead hunchbacked midget who keeps cropping up in the boots of various people's cars, passed around like a bottle of perfume that nobody wants and keeps handing on to unsuspecting relatives.
~The man behind the book~
Mandanipour was an established writer in Iran but CAILS is the first of his novels to be translated from Farsi into English. The book was written in the USA whilst the author was a fellow at Brown University. It's hard to imagine it would ever be published in Iran as it's an unsubtle attack on the authorities and a cutting parody of some of the more extreme behaviours of his country men and women.
It's not an easy read. The first hundred pages were a bit of an ordeal to get through and had me wondering how on earth I'd ever be able to review the book. The action seemed to pick up and I got used to the style in the second hundred pages and found them much more entertaining and then I spent the last third of the book worrying about how I was going to cope with it ending.
This book is a journey rather than a destination. Despite writing the review only a week after finishing the book, I couldn't actually remember how it ended and I didn't really care. There were things that happened along the way that stand out in my memory though - Dara leaving coded messages in books, Sara 'buying' a book by taking off her scarf and running through the streets, the author stepping into the plot and scratching Sinbad's car and hiding the dead midget in the boot, the assassin hunting down Dara - there are loads of fantastic moments but the end isn't really one of them. I couldn't give away the plot if I wanted to - I'm still not entirely sure there was one.
Would I recommend you read Censoring and Iranian Love Story? I loved it - once I got past the fourth wall thing - but I'd have to be honest and admit that I don't think it would be everyone's cup of tea. I've been to Iran a couple of times and I loved this bizarre and unusual country despite the repressive and extreme regime. I recognised the local cultural references but probably missed a few of the literary ones though I can see they'd be a bit confusing for many readers. I can't guarantee you're going to love it - but I can be pretty sure that you'll realise you've never read anything quite like it before.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shariar Mandanipour
Published by Abacus