Archive for January, 2010

Uncensor Me!

January 31, 2010

That’s what Shahriar Mandanipour’s most recent novel cries out—uncensor my story! Allow it to develop in all it’s full, complicated, and deeply troublesome detail. The author’s plea seems to be half-fulfilled in the published product. One the one hand, despite the title—Censoring an Iranian Love Story—the author writes an uncensored book. But the novel is hardly free of the weight of censorship and the terror it brings. From the cover on forward, Mandanipour offers a thoughtful investigation of the meaning of censorship and love—particularly the deep relationship between the two in modern Iranian—at every step.

Just as the cover censors (with a golden screen) while allowing you to see the woman behind it, so too the book censors while providing you the full story. To explain—the premise of the novel is that an author, Shahriar, is composing a love story for publication in Iran. In order to get the book past government censors, he must severely curtail what he wishes to write. As Shahriar develops his love story between two characters named Sara and Dara, Mandanipour employs two helpful writing techniques. First, he marks off the censored story of Dara and Sara in bold type so that the regular type face that tells Shahriar’s tale reads as more of an author’s commentary on writing in Iran. Second, Mandanipour occasionally crosses out sections of the bold type Sara-Dara story that would be censored (the lines are still readable through the cross-out), so the reader can see the agonizing process of living and writing in Iran.

Mandanipour often plays Shahriar’s concern with the censors against Dara and Sara’s fear of developing a relationship in a country where unmarried men and women cannot legally intermingle. It’s a fruitful way of exploring a society where writing about love and falling in love are both deep perils, complete with serious legal consequences. To me, the brillance of the book is that it allows readers to experience the constant limitations and stress that life in modern Iran places on individuals. I’ve read plenty about Iranian censorship in a variety of arenas, but Mandanipour’s creative style of writing allows you to experience it on a more substantial level as you become involved not only a love story where the young lovers must watch their steps ever so carefully but also in the process of writing this very story with unlivable limitations on what’s fit to print.

Perhaps the greatest value of the book is as a window of insight into contemporary Iranian society, particularly the perils of publishing. But the author’s investigation of love as an experience and emotion is also not to be underestimated. Mandanipour makes full use of the constraints society places on his characters in order to probe and develop their feelings all the more potently. He also makes nice, if occasionally somewhat confusing use, of the Persian literary tradition. If you don’t know the Arabian Nights and Khusrau and Shirin, then you won’t miss much, but the added touches are a nice way to connect his work to the past for those with a basic knowledge of Persian literature.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

January 31, 2010

Some books teach you by being informative, others by being critically written, and some by just being plain fun. With the latter idea in mind I definitely recommend A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif.

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The book strives to be a dark political thriller with some basis in real life events. The center story is how General Zia, dictator of Pakistan 1977-1988, died in a mysterious plane crash. Beyond that, the details are mainly imagined as the author has a ball inventing conspiracy theories galore.

The book will not teach you a ton about General Zia’s rule, although it does hint at some things, notably his faith and the Islamicization of Pakistan. What the book will give you insight into, however, are some of the more peculiar, bizarre, and deeply troubling aspects of Pakistani society. Hanif emphasizes the predominance of the military, the general misunderstanding and insanity that surrounds diplomatic relations with the US, and has a great series of scenes about the logically challenged nature of the Pakistani judicial system. Surely there are many good things about the country that Hanif leaves out, but there’s a place for humorous critique as well, and this is it.

In Spite of the Gods or With Them

January 31, 2010

I’ve just completed one of the best books I’ve ever read about modern India: In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. The book came out a few years ago and has been reviewed by several major publications to great acclaim. I’d like to add my voice to that chorus here.

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Luce wins me over early on when he levels a harsh, spot-on critique in his introduction against those who see India as an intensely spiritual place above and to the exclusion of all else. My problem with this spiritual perspective, articulated by many tourists, is that it’s essentialist and unchanged since high colonial times. For Luce, “Indian spirituality” interests him far less than the political, social, and economic aspects of this growing world power. So he embarks on successive accounts of caste, the state of Muslims in India, politics, economic growth, and so forth in an attempt to understand India as it stands at the beginning of the 21st century. If economics and such sound boring to you, not to fear, the book is peppered with fascinating anecdotes and interviews that make it a real page-turner. It lacks the dry rigor of an academic work in some respects (Luce is a journalist), but it’s one of the few books that I’ll say is richer for it.

Ironically, given the book’s title, Luce actually makes two very sharp observations about religion in modern India that I think are worth repeating here.

First, he notes that Hinduism is in some ways developing into a cohesive, unified religion only in the modern world. A bit of history helps to understand this argument—in premodern India, there really was no such thing as “Hinduism”. The word itself has no parallel in Sanskrit, the supposed language of Hinduism, and “Hindu” first arose as an Arabic word (Hinduism is pure English). Instead it’s more accurate to think of early “Hinduism” as a series of religions whose members did not understand themselves to be part of a single group. They called themselves things like “worshippers of Siva” or “worshippers of Vishnu”. These distinctions were punctuated by heavy regional differences as “Hindus” across India celebrated different holidays, performed different rituals, and so forth. But nowadays, with the rise of TV (Hindu televangelists are huge) and a shared consciousness about being part of a large group, Hinduism is beginning to truly become a single religion in many ways.

Second, Luce asks the question: Why is Indian modernity not resulting in any decline of religion but actually an increase in religious activity? In response to his own query, he begins by pointing out that such a question presumes a European model where modernity necessities the decline of religion. But, of course, there’s another major exception to that correlation in world history: the good ole U.S.A. Luce point out that neither India nor America has ever had a highly centralized, state-controlled religion as Europe was subjected to for centuries. As a result, it seems that both countries will keep religion around for a good deal longer, even making it a necessary part of what it means to be modern. After all, whoever said that Europe would get to have the last word on that front?