CENSORING AN IRANIAN LOVE STORY
By Shahriar Mandanipour
Translated, from the Farsi, by Sara Khalili
Knopf, 304 pp., $25
“Censorship drives a poet or a writer to abstain from superficiality and to instead delve into the layers and depths of love and relationships and achieve a level of creativity that Western poets and writers cannot even dream of.’’ As the writer here tries to tell his love story, he is mindful that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, in the person of a Mr. Petrovich, has complete editorial control. Thus he alters his text, omitting what he knows is unacceptable or crossing out the passages that will be deemed provocative or injurious to public chastity. The crossed out passages are included, with black lines, the omissions re-marked.
He creates his young lovers Sara and Dara, allows them to speak in public and attempt to meet in private. He imagines Mr. Petrovich, his most attentive and responsive audience. Author and characters must write, speak, and act with subtlety and subterfuge in life and on the page. But the characters have lives and minds of their own, acting in ways the writer does not support, objecting to words they would not have spoken. In this brilliantly conceived and cleverly written novel, characters and author together and separately act and write with sly purpose, disguising and disavowing their subversive ends - to live, love, and create in today’s repressive Iranian society.
BENNY & SHRIMP
By Katarina Mazetti
Translated, from the Swedish, by Sarah Death
Penguin, 224 pp., $14
In this surprising little love story (originally written in Swedish), two lonely 30-somethings, Benny and Shrimp meet in a cemetery, tending to graves. In alternating chapters, they tell their overlapping stories. He runs a farm with 24 cows, working around the clock. She is a librarian, in charge of the children’s section. Their first impressions of each other are poor - he considers her beige and dull, sitting by her bare, unplanted grave; she reduces him to his peaked cap, his soiled hands, and the monstrously tasteless gravestone he cares for.
But when he turns to her, his smile “had sun and wild strawberries and birds singing and expanses of glittering water in it.’’ She is smitten, and so is he. He calls her Shrimp because she is “pale, curled around her soft parts, with her shell on the outside. And long feelers.’’ She begins to know him as Benny instead of by the name on his cap, Forest Owner. She reads Lacan and goes to the opera. His only reading is the National Farming Magazine. At first, they find their differences delightful and sweet; but eventually those differences become real and hard. Although they are “like chalk and cheese,’’ they keep trying to find a way to mix. How they manage it in the end is ingenious and unusual, and, in its own way, satisfying.
WHAT I THOUGHT I KNEW: A Memoir
By Alice Eve Cohen
Viking, 208 pp., $24.95
This is an almost unbelievable story. At 44 years old, having been assured that she was infertile, and having adopted a baby girl nine years earlier, Cohen discovered that she was six months pregnant. The pregnancy had gone undetected by several doctors who diagnosed her symptoms as everything from early menopause to the effects of underwire bras. Learning that she was pregnant was not a happy surprise. Cohen was terrified of having a deformed or disabled child due to several preexisting conditions, artificial hormones, and no prenatal care. She and her fiance (10 years younger) had complicated lives in the theater that they didn’t want to compromise and couldn’t afford to lose. After receiving a series of bizarre prognoses, including the likelihood that the baby would be a girl but would have a penis, Cohen seriously considered a late term abortion, giving the child up for adoption, and suicide.
After three months of bed rest, constant anxiety, profound ambivalence, and 47 hours of labor, Cohen gave birth to a five-pound girl with correct female genitals but with a severe disability. The baby had Russell Silver syndrome, a rare growth disorder, requiring hormones, surgeries, and extensive and immediate physical therapy. Cohen panicked, considered what remained of her options - adoption and suicide - and refused drugs for post partum depression. With the help of her saintly fiance, she pulled through. She admits to feelings our society considers unacceptable - fear that she will not be able to love or care for a disabled child, shame that she doesn’t want to test herself against those fears. Her carefully described and candid reactions to the ever-changing but always horrible predictions make her story both a page-turner and a tear-jerker.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance writer who lives in New York.