Shahriar Mandanipour‘s novel from exile, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, is the back-story of the shockingly brave green-banded resistance we watched on TV till the regime cracked down on reporting… and Michael Jackson died.
CNN pictures of a botched election and a nation, a mullocracy, in turmoil are one thing. The darker, more satisfying novelist’s version gives you a deep ecosystem of paranoia, both earned and embellished — a sort of Thousand and One Nights version of Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), anticipating revolutionary chaos.
Mandanipour’s Iran is eternally a young people’s country (80 percent under 30, nowadays) where the revolutionary generations don’t much listen or learn from each other. “My generation sacrificed, but didn’t know what democracy was. To get killed was an honor… We got rid of the Shah, but didn’t know what we wanted. This new generation wants freedom to walk together, and the future right now.”
From antiquity Mandanipour’s Iran stands for inspired story-telling, with a contrary bad old habit of censoring its best writers.
And then there’s a love problem at the heart of the Mandanipour diagnosis of Iranian culture: it’s the over-refinement of pomegranate-and-nightingale metaphors and fantasy, matched by a deathly dread of the real thing: of boys and girls holding hands in a picture show. “In this book I am trying to write a brighter story about love… to remind Iranians that there is love in the world, that it is our right to be lovers.”
Shahriar Mandanipour, who was black-listed and unpublishable in Iran, came to the US three years ago. He wrote his new novel, in Farsi, as an artist in residence at Brown University’s Watson Institute. Up the road in Cambridge the other day, he talked with me about the whole web of life, love and literature in Iran and maybe elsewhere. He also unlocked for us the Iranian code on three key dates in the history Iran shares with the US:
1953 was the year of Operation Ajax, the “original sin” in postwar bullying that Americans insist on forgetting. Kermit Roosevelt, plying an infinite supply of CIA $100 bills, roused the rabble against Iran’s model post-colonial democracy led by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh (for the sin of repatriating the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) and seated Reza Shah Pahlavi, the King of Kings and Light of the Aryans, on the Peacock Throne. “My kind of Shah!” marveled Dave Powers, court jester in the Kennedy White House. We Americans were coached at liking the puppet “modernizer,” but Iranians like Shahriar Mandanipour called it a “coup d’etat” and despised the Shah for smashing their golden opportunity for self-rule and then for the depraved tortures and killings by Savak, the Shah’s secret police. Though no Iranians were involved in 911, “It is not far-fetched,” as Steve Kinzer has told us, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.” Iranians and Americans are all still paying, in blind purgatorial agony, for the unmentionable sin of 1953.
1979 was the year when Jimmy Carter, under pressure from Henry Kissinger and the Rockefeller Brothers, admitted the ousted Shah to the US for medical treatment. It was the year when Iranians like Shahriar Mandanipour wanted the US to hand over the Shah to Iran for trial and, presumably, execution. When Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran in protest, 1979 became the start of more than a year of “America Held Hostage.” In Iran it was crucially the moment when democrats and moderates like Mahdi Bazargan were unmercifully squeezed out of office, when as Shahriar Mandanipour put it in conversation, “the liberal government resigned and the clerics got all the power.”
2003 was the year of mind-melting absurdity, when the Bush invasion of Iraq toppled America’s vicious old friend and Iran’s worst enemy, Saddam Hussein. The Mandanipour version stems from his own “long hot summer” of army service at the front of Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s. His personal discovery as a reluctant soldier was that he could not fire on an Iraqi who wasn’t firing at him, yet further that he hated above all Saddam Hussein, “a foolish dictator who had started a ridiculous war.” When the US finally turned on Saddam, “in the depth of myself, I was happy,” Mandanipour admits, though he knew he would come to hate the war. It was a war, of course, that extended Iran’s influence through Iraq’s Shia majority. It was a US-Iraq war, I volunteered, that Iran won. “That the regime won,” Mandanipour corrected me. “Not the people.”
Mostly, though, Shahriar Mandanipour is talking here about books and literature — about the burdens on a writer who’s been forced out of his language zone, and the tricks he has called on here to surmount the problem. The assignment he gave his dark self in a dark time was to write “a love story” with “an ending that will not make my reader afraid of falling in love.” His post-modern construction is a novel of four essential characters in cross-conversation: the virgin lovers Sara and Dara, the author who is trying to tell their story and the official censor who is trying to thwart it. The question is whether the censor can be induced to fall in love with the lovers. My answer is that Shahriar Mandanipour is in the Scheherazade class of story tellers, for our time.