When, last summer, YouTube disseminated from Tehran the extraordinary cell-phone images of the young woman named Neda as she expired from an apparently random bullet at a pro-democracy demonstration on June 20, 2009, perhaps few thought first of all of Shahriar Mandanipour’s highly literary metafictional novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, published in the United States just six weeks previously.
And yet Mandanipour’s novel—his first to be translated into English, and a work directed, in part, at a Western audience—opens with a prefiguring of just such a tragedy. At the book’s outset we see a young girl, a student, as yet unnamed (she will prove to be Sara, protagonist of the narrator’s novel-within-a-novel), standing on the edges of a demonstration bearing a placard with the somewhat mystifying slogan “Death to Freedom, Death to Captivity.” Of her we are told:
The girl does not know that in precisely seven minutes and seven seconds, at the height of the clash between the students, the police, and the members of the Party of God, in the chaos of attacks and escapes, she will be knocked into with great force, she will fall back, her head will hit against a cement edge, and her sad Oriental eyes will forever close…
In short, like Neda herself, Sara is fated to sacrifice her life simply because she is standing there, then.
The novelist-narrator then proceeds to introduce Sara’s suitor, a young man named Dara, whose attentions will lure her away, thus diverting the course of history and sparing Sara death on this day. It is clear from the novel’s outset that what seem like Calvinoesque intellectual literary games are, in an Iranian setting, played for far higher stakes: Mandanipour’s narrator writes in an attempt to divert the course of history. He writes even a love story—perhaps especially a love story—to save lives.
Mandanipour wants us, his Western audience, to understand that in contemporary Iran, there is no boundary between realism and surrealism. As Sara idles at the demonstration’s edge, the secret police monitoring the event on their wireless radios pay her particular notice: “Watch her with extreme vigilance and caution,” they say.
This is most definitely a new conspiracy and a new plot for a velvet revolution orchestrated by American imperialism… Keep her under surveillance but do not let her suspect anything. Let her think she doesn’t exist.
The apparent comedy of these lines is bleak indeed when you understand that Mandanipour’s imagining is nothing if not real: you have only to read the accounts of those who have actually suffered at the hands of Iran’s secret police (such as Haleh Esfandiari, whose memoir I reviewed in these pages last fall) to appreciate their obsession …