Translated from Persian by Sara Khalili
(Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, 2018)
Shahriar Mandanipour is certainly one of the most skilled and renowned writers in contemporary Iranian literature. He has authored nine volumes of fiction, one nonfiction book, and more than a hundred essays in literary theory, literature and art criticism, creative writing, censorship, and social commentary. Born in 1957 in Shiraz, Mandanipour studied political science at Tehran University and witnessed the 1979 revolution. He joined the military at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. The first collection of his stories, Shadows of the Cave, was published in 1989, and the second, The Eighth Day of the Earth, in 1992. Having fallen prey to censorship soon after, none of his ensuing works saw the light of day again until 1997, when reformist President Mohammad Khatami came to be elected to office. Some of his short stories and essays have been published in anthologies, such as Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, as well as in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His first novel in English, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, was published in 2009, and translated into English by Sara Khalili. The New Yorker named it as one of the reviewers’ favorites of 2009, after which he received the Athens Prize for Literature for 2011.
Shahriar Mandanipour’s latest novel Moon Brow is above all a story about Amir Yamini, the main character who is suffering from injuries constantly reminding him of his participation in the Iran-Iraq war. Aside from losing his arm, Amir has lost most of his memory. Before joining the war, Amir had been a very active and wealthy man reveling in the carefree existence of a socialite, indulging along the way in revolutionary behavior, seducing women, and thereby irritating (to put it in the mildest of terms) his religious family. His rebellion versus his devoted family, coming in the shape of partying, drinking, and promiscuity, had stopped with an incident resulting in his arrest, prompting his father Agha Haji to pull some strings and use his connections in the local Revolutionary Guard station in order to stop his execution. After the incident, Amir found himself fighting in the middle of the war. Five years later, he was found by his mother and sister Reyhaneh in a mental hospital for soldiers suffering from hysterical neurosis and post traumatic stress disorder.
Without his left arm and much of his memory, Amir is possessed and haunted by the vision of a mysterious woman whose face he is not able to see because “the crescent moon on her forehead shines too brightly.” Just because of that, he gives her the name Moon Brow. His life back home in Tehran afterwards is everything but usual: the social mores created by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolution, the reputation of a lunatic, and the loss of his full memory make him obsessed with the only thing he’s got – his imagination and fantasies about Moon Brow. After his father burned his books, there are no real material traces to lead Amir towards the reality that once surrounded him, with the only lure to his previous life being in a way the non material, non existing, completely abstract notion, scarred memory, and partial illusion about a girl who is riding on the totality of his thoughts. His desperate search for her is ultimately helped by his sister Reyhaneh. Their action of leaving the walls surrounding them is an endeavor aimed towards arriving at the one and only possible solution for him: Amir must go back to the battlefield and find the remains of his severed arm — this is the only way to discover the missing parts in his fragmented reality. His mission to find Moon Brow is a mission to regain himself, while finding his buried arm in order to be whole again is a metaphor for his clear attempt at unearthing the secrets he needs to retrace in his wounded cortex. Nevertheless, the idea of finding his arm on the battlefield turns out to be not quite as absurd as could be imagined.
There are two aspects of the novel which merit emphasis. On one hand, the entire work is a political manifesto, an homage to the Iraq – Iran war and the very significant year of 1979. The same year when Margaret Thatcher became British prime minister and began her term in office with the sentence: “There is no such thing as society,” the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was made, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran heralding the advent of the Islamic Republic in Iran. A lot has been written to support the theory that it was actually 1979, rather than 1989, which was the year that truly changed the world and, should that genuinely be the case, we can say that, in Shahriar Mandanipour’s novel, that year is the year that not only alters the political macrocosm surrounding us, but it also changes the entire set of microcosms Amir inhabits as well.
On the other hand, all this takes place under the umbrella of the more powerful force of nature, the most mysterious human condition – love. In this duality, diversity, or discrepancy between the madness of the outside world and the abstractness of one’s inner life lies the novel’s double effect, which is presented by a literary device that echoes both sides of human nature: the rational ergo political one (emerges in irrational wars and stupidity) and irrational ergo emotional one (pictured through pure love which leads towards the quite rational need to understand oneself). There is no doubt that any love story uttered in Farsi is inevitably political, seeing as writing in that language can in and of itself be considered an act of “declaring war against darkness and ignorance” (as Mandanipur once dubbed it himself). Love is a completely individual and excruciatingly unique emotional state; therefore it is inherently against dictatorships of any kind.
Almost as equally as the content, the form or the defamiliarization (as an artistic technique) shapes the duality of politics and love in the novel. The narrators are neither the author nor the story’s protagonist; they are the attendant angels on Amir’s 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 – the angel of virtue, and the other, the angel of sin.
Moon Brow is a novel that moves back and forth between the present and various points of the past. Shifting perspectives, as well as creative variations offered in a simple, yet very effective style of story-telling, form a constituent part of Mandanipour’s potent and powerful writing technique. Aside from the interesting perspective of Iran’s political situation, Mandanipour produces a beautiful novel about hope and love. Not about love as product, as it has been turned into all around the globe, including Iran, but love with the standard prerequisite or prefix of “falling into.” Even if you don’t find your beloved, you still remain in love. Therefore Moon Brow is not a love story in a pathetic and Hollywood-like happy ending way, but is instead a narrative nested in its entirety within a dangerous and very painful uncertainty – what love is and should actually be all about.
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Dalibor Plečić holds an MA degree in philology from the Department of World and Comparative Literature. He is a book reviewer for Booksa, Beton, and Versopolis magazines from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia respectively. Plečić has authored one novel, as well as a collection of short stories and essays on science fiction in literature. Aside from writing prose, he has been writing and delivering performance poetry at several European poetry festivals, as well as translating prose from and into a number of different languages.