Marjane Satrapi was born in Rasht, Iran in 1969 and grew up in Tehran. She witnessed first hand the events of the 1979 Revolution and the war with Iraq (1980 – 1988). Not surprisingly, this has given her a wealth of material to draw on for her memoir, the two volume graphic novel Persepolis. While many graphic novels (annoyingly) get compared to Art Spiegelman’s seminal Maus simply because they are graphic novels, Persepolis actually does feel very similar in its style and composition in the way that it deliberately mixes/juxtaposes personal and political history to create not only a dramatic account of Satrapi’s youth but also an insider’s record of Iran through that period of time.
It’s extremely important that the book function as historical record, because one of its main functions (and purposely so) is to teach its Western readers about Iran. Originally published in French (Satrapi now lives in Paris) but later translated into many different languages, it is constructed in such a way so as to not only educate, but also create empathy and fraternity with, and dispel many myths about, the Iranian people and their culture.
Persepolis — The Story Of A Childhood
This book covers the period of Satrapi’s youth from just before the revolution to her departure for Vienna in 1984 due to the war. It is divided up into sections dealing with different subjects; the first one is simply titled ‘The Veil,’ and talks about one of the main things that Westerners tend to focus on when they think about Islamic countries — women wearing hijabs or chadors. Satrapi, as mentioned above, gives both a personal and political overview of the subject, describing how there were women protesting in the streets both for and against the veil, but also how herself and her school friends, at ten years old, really didn’t understand what was going on.
She employs the same approach to discuss ancient Persian history, the months leading up to and encompassing the Revolution, the Iraq war, and how her family was involved and affected by these events (click here to read ‘The Trip’). Also, she encourages the Western reader to be sympathetic towards her characters in various ways, such as having them curse Saddam Hussein (many Iranians loathe Hussein, and can sometimes be anti-Iraqi, because of the war) and by referencing American culture (at one point she refers to the Iranian National Anthem as ‘our Star-Spangled Banner’).
One of the ways the book differs extremely from Maus is the tone of the narration; the ‘Art’ character in Maus is extremely self-conscious (and at times self-loathing) about his undertaking to pry his family’s history from his somewhat recalcitrant father; the ‘Marjane’ character in Persepolis is, in Vol. 1 anyway, so self-laudatory as to be almost an unreliable narrator. She is resolutely confident in her abilities and intelligence, and her family is constantly praising her for these virtues; to wit, one of the reasons they send her to Vienna when she’s fourteen is that they worry she is too independent and outspoken and would eventually get into trouble with the hardline Iranian authorities. I wasn’t sure at first whether this was simply Satrapi looking back through rose-coloured glasses and painting an overly favourable picture of herself, or whether she had crafted that exact tone to show the cockiness, but ultimately naïvete, of herself at that age.
Persepolis II — The Story Of A Return
Where one of the aspects of Vol. I is a sort of culture-shock for the Western reader, Vol. II is all about culture shock for ‘Marjane.’ This book covers from her arrival in Austria and the subsequent ‘down-and-out’ period to her return to Iran and the various roller-coaster events of her personal life. She starts off in Vienna as the same precocious ‘Marjane’ from Vol. I, but quickly finds herself lost, personally and spiritually, amongst different groups, be they punks or anarchists or nihilists. As is somewhat typical in these situations — a teenager, on his/her own, away from home — she seeks acceptance anywhere she can find it, and it leads into a downward spiral of drug abuse and depression.
The impertinence from the first book quickly fades and is replaced by the doubt and self-loathing of the teenage years; this shows Satrapi was purposely crafting the tone of the narration to match ‘Marjane’s’ age and level of maturity, which demonstrates excellent vision and forethought. ‘Marjane’ is torn between trying to fit into her new surroundings and new-found ‘freedom,’ but also misses her home and finds herself at times defending the same Iran that she could be quick to criticize while she lived there. Eventually though, she does return, and the book gets very interesting as she is now able to show the reader Iran through an older and more educated eye, and there are sections discussing her thoughts and feelings about her homecoming along with info about the end of the war.
It is after this, unfortunately, that the book begins to taper off into a fairly ho-hum personal memoir. While there are still occasional comments about Iranian society and her re-insertion into it, the majority of what remains is simply an accounting of her various relationships — familial, platonic and romantic. It’s not bad, but not as interesting as everything that has come before. By the time of her second leavetaking at the end of the book — this time for France in 1996 — I found myself quite comfortable with having the saga completed.
If anyone’s still unclear on the vast differences between a huge number of Iranians and the totalitarian regime they’re forced to live under, Satrapi sums it up nicely here:
The real war is not between the West and the East. The real war is between intelligent and stupid people. There is much more in common between George Bush and the fanatics in my country than between me and the fanatics of my country.
Seems she still has part of that rebellious little kid in her after all.