I’ve talked before about the urge to buy a book based on nothing more than its cover. I keep telling myself that a good cover does not automatically guarantee that the book will be good, but time and time again I am drawn in by clever fonts and evocative graphics only to discover that the actual content of the book is vapid and boring. And yet, on occasion, my superficial method of choosing literature has served me well.
Take for instance the cover of a strange and fascinating work by Shahriar Mandanipour, Censoring an Iranian Love Story. The image generates a kind of visual magnetism that draws the reader closer until he cannot help but pick it up, and brings to mind something both strange and surreal, oppression and censorship mingled with something altogether more bizarre and wonderful. And that is exactly what the book delivers.
Within the pages of Censoring an Iranian Love Story you will find not one story, but two. The first is a simple tale of love between a Iranian man and woman desperately trying to find their way to each other in a society where romance is taboo. The second follows the writer of the first story, a harried man trying to craft a meaningful tale without incurring the wrath of totalitarian government censors. But as the book progresses the two tales mingle in such a way that the lines between them become blurred into obscurity. The writer often enters the substory to push his characters in one direction or another, but as he delves further into his dark and twisted labyrinth of words he finds himself pursued by a dark figure which has taken form from the pages of the story and materialized in the real world. Gradually the story looses focus on what is real and what is fiction, leaving behind a patina of surreality that colors the narrative in ways both strange and wonderful.
The book plants itself firmly in the soil of postmodernism with entire sections of text presented with strikethroughs followed by the writer explaining at great length why he could not include that part of the story. Yet for all of its strangeness Censoring and Iranian Love Story somehow makes a connection that resonates with the deepest levels of the human soul.
The blossoming love between the romantic leads feels real and powerful, and their struggle to find a way to be with each other in spite of societal taboos closely mirrors the author’s struggle to tell their story without running afoul of the all-powerful censors. Its beauty grows out of its tragedy and struggle, and it paints a vivid picture of people trying to be human in an inhuman society.
Though the title of the book makes reference to a love story, this is nothing like your mother’s romance novels. Given the strange structure of the book you would think the romance might be swallowed up entirely. But even though the writer’s frequent interjections about Iranian society and the difficulties of dealing with censorship take up more than half the book, the romance blooming between the two young people still manages to seem touching and real, and as a result of the restraints of Iranian society there is a sense of suppressed passion throughout the book which often seems to be bursting to tear itself free from the dead pages and become something more than fiction.
In addition to all of its more lofty accomplishments Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a fascinating look into Muslim culture today. It manages to be deeply critical of the excesses of the oppression that exists in Iran without becoming an overbearing diatribe. In American society where too few people truly understand the mindset and culture of the people living in Muslim countries, this book offers as clear a window into their world as you might ever hope to find.
The final verdict? This book isn’t for everyone. If you’re allergic to so-called “gimmicks” then give this book a wide berth; there are gimmicks aplenty here. But if you’re looking for a book that stretches the bounds of fiction and tells a wonderful and moving story in the process then Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a book you need to check out. You may be confused, but you won’t be disappointed.
I give it @ out of # stars.*
*No I’m not going to explain my rating system. This is the Bizzaro Book Review. Things get weird around here. Deal with it.
[I’m looking to do one of these reviews every Friday, and I’m fully open to suggestions and requests. I only require that the book be weird and that it be good. The second one is slightly optional. Also, I’d love to review more self-published and indie-published fiction so if you can point me in the direction of quality work by undiscovered authors I’d love to check it out.]