August 2003

Karin L. Kross


Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I went to look for Persepolis in the Graphic Novels section at the bookstore. Turns out that this wasn't the correct approach -- it was instead to be found in the now-burgeoning Middle Eastern History section (a zone which, until a couple of years ago, had once comprised approximately two and a half shelves). Those who have read my Comicbookslut columns can probably guess that this warmed my little heart: here, at last, a story in graphic novel form, out of the ghetto and right next to the books of Edward Said. And I was even more pleased when I read it.

Marjane Satrapi was ten years old when the Islamic Revolution of 1979 swept the Shah of Iran out of power. Satrapi came from a family of liberals who had protested against the Shah themselves, and who counted among their friends many who had been imprisoned and executed by the Shah's police. They welcomed his overthrow, but soon found that Iran under the ayatollahs was equally oppressive, if not more so. Satrapi found herself and her female schoolmates separated from the boys and forced to wear veils; and when the Iran-Iraq war began, the children would line up twice a day to mourn the war dead. Satrapi had learned rebelliousness from her parents, and by the time she was a teenager, it was apparent to them that her life would be in danger if she remained in Iraq. At fourteen, her parents sent her to live with friends in Vienna, and she now lives and works as an illustrator in Paris.

Persepolis is subtitled "The Story of a Childhood," but part of its brilliance is the way in which Satrapi weaves her personal history with that of her native country. Readers who might not know very much about the history of Iran need not worry; Satrapi fills the reader in with elegant images and wry asides. She is blunt in her assessment of Iran, and no less so in her memories of herself. She doesn't gloss over less flattering incidents, like the time she told a schoolmate that "when [grown-ups] keep saying that someone is on a trip it really means he is dead." (Fortunately, the schoolmate's father was still alive, and in prison, and released after the revolution.) Even so, she is no less sympathetic for all that; if anything, moments such as these are a reminder that, even under the direst of circumstances, children are much alike everywhere, both in their desire to be safe and happy and in their ability to be thoughtless to one another.

The artwork is deceptively simple, much like Art Spiegelman's Maus. Satrapi wrings a lot of subtlety out of simple black-and-white lines and shadows, and there are wonderful moments of nuance and metaphor, as when she renders a three-week trip to Spain and Italy in a single page, with herself and her parents flying on a magic carpet over the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Sadness pervades the pages of Persepolis: mourning for the friends and family who fell victim to the Shah and to the ayatollahs, and grief as well for a beloved country that seems fated to suffer one form of oppression after another. Satrapi's wry humor keeps the sadness from becoming unbearable -- there is a priceless moment where, after having had a close shave with the moral guardians of Tehran, the teenage Marjane goes up to her room and blasts her tape of Kim Wylde singing "We're the Kids in America" -- but the lighter moments serve equally to contrast against the horror of, for instance, the execution of Marjane's beloved uncle. Satrapi handles the emotional pitch of her story exceptionally well, however, and the result is a hugely moving tale.

The book's timeliness, of course, is hard to miss. If the growth of the Middle Eastern History section of the bookstore is any indication, there are a lot of people who want to try and understand the source of the conflicts between East and West. Books like Persepolis are no less valuable, for they show us the lives of the people, which is something that people on any side of the conflict should always try to understand.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Pantheon Books
ISBN: 0375422307