:: Article

Literature and Desire

By Max Dunbar.


Remember, thinking of sin is itself a sin. You writers should know that if the thought of writing a sinful story enters your mind, your sin is far greater than that of an ordinary person, because your sin infects the mind of your readers, and the more readers you have, the greater your sin. Do you understand?

Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shahriar Mandanipour, Little, Brown, 2009

A man and a woman fall in love. Happens all the time, in art and in life. But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, love affairs are hard to carry out and harder to write about.

Just as imported filmreels are spliced and slashed bare of female flesh and form, just as headscarf and niqab are drawn on magazine models in permanent marker, a writer working under theocracy must submit his novel to an Islamic censor panel – personified in Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel by the zealous and omniscient Mr Petrovich. The censor will then excise any counter-revolutionary words and sentences, including references to economic struggle and state monitoring of citizens, consumption of alcohol, profanities and, of course, sexual references.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story contains the tale of Dara and Sara, complete with struck-out words; the love story even in its edited version is bizarre and surreal, peopled with the ghosts of dead poets and Mongol armies. Surrounding the story is Mandanipour’s commentary on the composition of the novel, during which he tries to second-guess Petrovich’s concerns, or sneak things past him. Often he’ll withhold the most profound insights into his characters’ lives, and then berate himself for self-censorship.

The audience is witness to all kinds of authorial insecurities and experiments. Mandanipour will address the reader directly, try out different plot twists and styles. Characters will accost their creator and object to their portrayal in the book. It’s an experimental work, clever without being sly, playful but never self-indulgent. Petrovich tells the author: ‘Don’t forget, we take no issue with postmodernism. After all, it promotes a return to tradition.’

The Islamic censors watch for prurience in morbid and microscopic detail. A scene where a character refills his motorcycle’s petrol tank turns out to be problematic because of its crude phallic symbolism. Police batons cannot be described for similar reasons. Random lost words and phrases: sway on top of each other, If I were a Dracula I would suck his blood, The problem is, when a young boy and girl walk together sometimes their arms come into contact, The wind blows in Sara’s long hair, and smoked opium. It reminds you that only the puritan takes sex this seriously and sees it in so many places.

There is an unintended compliment in the theocrats’ repression of literature: in its evil way totalitarianism recognises the power of words. Literature, like desire, has a self-sustaining power and the best of writing is alive long after empires have fallen and old gods forgotten. Censoring an Iranian Love Story is an affirmation of this truth, and a novel as much about creation as censorship.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 22nd, 2009.