A rusted-out Alfa Romeo, stranded in a grove of cherry trees; a one-armed, amnesiac veteran, estranged from his aristocratic family while living in their home; unshakable visions of an unnamed woman, her face hidden as though from the glow of a crescent moon emblazoned on her forehead—these images would be memorable even in a conventional novel. But place them in post-revolutionary Tehran, then filter them through a psyche that has literally split itself in two, and you get the first chapter of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow, the most eye-opening novel I’ve read this year.
Mandanipour, whose work has been banned in his native Iran, has not published a book since 2009’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story, a novel that Michiko Kakutani called an “Escher-like meditation on the interplay of life and art,” and that was named a best book of the year by the New Yorker. Translated from the Farsi, Censoring was a deft exploration of the artifice of post-modern fiction, and the trials of love, imagination, and self-expression under an oppressive regime. With Moon Brow, Mandanipour pulls his lovelorn characters out of the dark alleys and obscure chatrooms he explored in Censoring into grander and more violent slices of Iranian history. Readers enter the addled mind of wounded veteran Amir Khan as he struggles to pull together a vision of his pre-revolutionary past, his memory clouded by alcohol, forbidden lust, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The non-linear nature of Amir’s journey is further complicated by his apparently fractured personality—the narration is split between two “scribes,” one virtuous and one vicious, whom he imagines scrawling the story down the right and left sides of his back, respectively. Despite its length and structural originality, Moon Brow pulls the reader along with grace, humor, and suspense. At once a war novel, a mystery, and an investigation of the relationship between love and personal growth, this book is a must-read from one of Iran’s greatest writers. I corresponded with Mandanipour via email to learn more.
SR: You have studied political science, seen combat, and lived on multiple continents. With such material to draw from, what keeps you coming back to the love story?
Mandanipour: I always wished I could write a beautiful love story. Not a Danielle Steel-style love story or one with a happy-go-lucky Hollywood ending, but one that was aesthetically beautiful. This was the main subject of Censoring an Iranian Love Story. The second subject was that, under Iran’s Islamic regime and its censorship practices, it is impossible to publish a beautiful love story. Not only in Iran, but all around the world, instead of love being created and evolving day after day, it has been turned into and is used as a product. The theme of my new novel is being in love. A lover may find love, or may not, or may simply fall in love with being in love. And so, even if you don’t find your beloved, you still remain in love.
SR: You’ve said before: “I’m not a political man. I studied Political Science, and maybe because I know something about politics, I hate politics.” Many characters in your books—the protagonists of both Censoring and Moon Brow, among others—are disaffected activists who find love only after leaving political struggles behind. Could you talk a bit more about the relationship between politics and love, or politics and literature, in Iranian culture?
Mandanipour: Unfortunately, any love story in Persian will inevitably have political reverberations, and become a declaration of war against darkness and ignorance. And the latter will cause it to become even more politicized. At checkpoints in cities and towns across Iran, the police take people out of their cars and smell their breath to see if they have been drinking. This is not done out of concern for people’s health; that, they don’t care about. They do it so that if you have been drinking and it is your first time being caught, you will receive eighty lashes, the second time as well, and the third time they will execute you. Ahmad Shamlu, the great contemporary Iranian poet, wrote:
They smell your breath,
lest you have said I love you . . .
Being in love is forbidden in Iran, just as it is to drink wine. Love was forbidden among the anti-dictatorship guerilla groups, too. All of whatever love there is must be love for the Islamic leader.
On the other hand, isn’t it true that love means the freedom to choose, and that every human being, by creating his or her own love, will stop being identical to others? Dictators design a human prototype or model and command that all people must conform to it; lovers create a unique self with their love, and consequently are anti-dictator.
SR: While Censoring was set in contemporary Iran, Moon Brow takes place during the years surrounding the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. What was it like returning to this particularly turbulent moment in Iran’s history, and the relatively uncensored years that preceded it?
Mandanipour: Now that I have enough distance from the time I finished writing Moon Brow, I can say that it seems this novel, too, is a symbolic representation of Iran, which like the main character has lost much of its memory and its left arm in war and is now in search of a faceless love.
Being away from Iran and censorship has helped me look at my literature and my country from a different angle. In Iran, I twice battled to write this novel. Once from a first-person perspective, then from a third-person point of view. After writing eighty pages the first time and some one hundred pages the second time, I realized that the novel was not developing the way it should. My experience kept telling me that there was something wrong somewhere. The idea of the novel’s creative point of view came to me during the nine months I lived in Berlin. Writing it did not become easy, but it started to flow. The narrators are neither me nor the story’s protagonist, they are the attendant angels on his right and left shoulders recording his good and bad deeds. The angel on the right narrates in prose that is more gracious and poetic, and the one on the left in prose that is more casual, common, and somewhat slang.
SR: In Censoring an Iranian Love Story, you write that “99.9 percent of Iranians do not consider literature serious work.” Now that you have been living in the U.S. for over a decade, what differences and similarities do you see between Iran’s perception of literature and America’s?
Mandanipour: In Iran and the US, we have readers who choose to read dime novels, books that you leave behind in a waiting room or a train station when you have finished reading them. These are not literature. They don’t leave a scratch on your mind or a wrinkle on your brain. Then there are books that you want to keep, because seeing them reminds you of the pleasant moments you spent with them. It is this literature that in Iran is wounded by the blade of censorship. But despite its injuries, it is still alive. It has kept the flicker of its lighthouse glowing, even if its writer or poet is assassinated or dies of grief.
In American literature, allegories, metaphors, and symbols do not have as much function as they do in Persian literature. Direct and illustrative prose works best, following Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory that one-eighth of the story should appear on the surface. It seems to me that of the Faulkner-esque and Hemingway-esque approaches, it is the latter that has a greater following.
Another difference is that America’s literature has less of an eye toward European and Latin American works than Iran’s literature does. Perhaps it does not sense a need for this because it is self-sufficient.
SR: Early in Censoring an Iranian Love Story, you make what seems to be a statement of purpose for your art:
In truth, I have always seen myself as a lonely person, even though I have very good friends, even though I have a kind family. The attack of discovering one’s loneliness is different from the common feelings of loneliness . . . Although my work is to grapple with words, I have no words with which to describe and explain this feeling. Perhaps I write stories to show that in life there are moments, emotions, and events that cannot be explained with words.
Is this ineffability related to the unique structure of Moon Brow? There are several moments in the novel when the divergent scribes bicker over who should be writing a given passage—the virtuous one on Amir’s right shoulder, or the vicious one on his left.
Mandanipour: I think writers who write their stories with one narrator and one consistent style of prose, after a while will not have a new story, not for themselves and not for the reader. If it is true that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and, say, the mother figure in many stories has been narrated through archetypes and prototypes, then the most important principle that remains for the writer is creativity and innovation in the form of the story and the form of the prose.
I start my story-writing classes and workshops with these questions: Who is narrating, when, and why? “Why is this story being told?” is a dangerous question: many great stories don’t have an answer. For instance, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. Even though it is a masterpiece, it lacks the causality of narration. Why does the narrator confess to the murder he has committed? The text offers no answer. On the other hand, the works of writers such as Joseph Conrad embody the causality of narration.
SR: You have lived and taught in the U.S. for some time now, yet you continue to write fiction in Farsi. Do you feel a disparity between your work and the literary environment you inhabit?
Mandanipour: Farsi is a beautiful and literary language. Its power of scientific expression is weak, but with an official life of more than fifteen hundred years, its figurative and illustrative power of expression is very strong. I started writing when I was about fourteen years old and I have finally arrived at a style of prose in the Persian language that is distinctively mine—it is my life and my identity, my only asset in this world. No one can steal it, expropriate it, or, like my father’s property, confiscate it. I cannot let go of it, or it cannot let go of me.
Since I came to America almost eleven years ago, I have taken a house and turned it into a home seven times, and in the near future will do so again. It is not easy to leave your household goods and some of your books outside and move to a different place. But as the Iranian writer Houshang Golshiri said, “Language is my home.” Where and how could I leave it behind? It is the only home that goes with me anywhere and anytime I go . . .
Moon Brow will be published by Restless Books on April 24.