Wednesday Book Club: Persepolis

Wednesday, 17 December 2008 — 11:46pm | Book Club, Comics, Literature

This week’s selection: Persepolis (2004) by Marjane Satrapi. Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

In brief: This memoir-in-comics of a liberated Iranian woman who grew up in the Islamic Revolution—or, if you will, between Iraq and a hard place—is about as penetrating a look at life under the veil as one is likely to find. A supreme demonstration of resistance through art, here is that rare specimen of autobiographical identity-crisis literature with the political weight to stand outside itself and really matter. If you think you know anything about Iran, read Persepolis and think again.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Persepolis, keep reading below.)

Persepolis was originally published in French in four parts, and in English in two (Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return). My edition, The Complete Persepolis, compiled the entire English text into one volume. The difference in direction between the two parts is sharp enough to be scrutable. The first half rides on the turbulent intrigue of the transition from the Shah to the Ayatollah as seen through the eyes of a child, while the second half relies heavily on our established familiarity with the author to deliver a personal tale of cultural confusion under a stable but oppressive regime.

The artistic style of Satrapi’s illustrations is functional and subdued. Situated in regular, rectangular panel layouts, Persepolis is hardly a frame-breaking formal experiment: its rhetorical method is to show a procession of indecorous domestic scenes, occasionally punctuated by a full-page panel that leverages its own size to project everyday life into the sweep of history. Everything in the book is solid black or solid white, with no gradient of shading in between: this allows Satrapi to set the tone of every panel with the simple choice of making it black-on-white or white-on-black, and develop the symbol of the veil as a blanketing motif. The simplicity of the art never takes away from our ability to recognize the characters by their faces, leaving me curious as to how many of the characters actually looked in real life.

The easiest comparison is to Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the similarly bipartite granddaddy of comic books about authoritarian regimes. Persepolis is a book of a more playful character in a way that Spiegelman’s Holocaust remembrance could not afford to be, which is not to say that it doesn’t take its subject seriously. To the contrary, it is always conscious of the fact that for all the absurdities of theocratic moral hysteria, the Islamic Revolution was a matter of life and death. People—often friends and family—were imprisoned, tortured, and eventually wiped out.

The young Marjane Satrapi (or Marji, as we come to know her) isn’t just any child, either. Educated in a French lycée and born to leftist revolutionary parents who were all too pleased to bring down the Shah before they saw what came next, Marji grows up on a diet of comic books about dialectic materialism. So it’s an adjustment, shall we say, when she and all the other girls at school are separated from the boys and forced to wear the veil. And things get no better when Saddam starts bombing the country.

Recognizing that a fundamentalist Iran is no place for an irreverent young freethinker, Marji’s parents send her to Austria at the age of fourteen. Thus concludes the first half.

The second part of Persepolis takes us through Marji’s time as a teenager in Europe, which is initially the standard depressing tale of a perfectly good girl gone bad. Little of it would be interesting if our sympathies were not already in Marji’s pocket, thanks to Part 1. Let this be a warning to any studious young women who make the mistake of falling in with anarchist punk-rock druggies: it’s not a lot of fun.

Luckily, Marji comes around and realizes what she has done to herself, though it takes a brush with death to get her there. She remarks on the absurdity of how, after surviving the execution of family members and witnessing the severed body parts of neighbours blown to pieces, “a banal story of love” nearly does her in.

So she returns to Iran, where the story gets interesting again because we are back in a place of the world where there is a very palpable war to be fought over liberties and rights, especially those of women. This is feminism and anti-establishment subversion at their ethical best, a far cry from the phony campus radicalism of western middle-class rebels who have never known real oppression.

An authoritarian regime isn’t content with the murder of dissenting individuals: it goes for the total erasure of their human existence. Persepolis is a courageous book because it asserts the humanity of the sensible, freethinking Iranian woman. Islamic law goes out of its way to silence people like Marjane Satrapi and pass Iran off as a conservative cultural monolith with little internal dissension. The tragedy is that too often, the western conception of Iran agrees, and we mistake the fundamentalism of their government as representative of fundamentalist popular support.

The governing theocracy is not a regime that we can afford to tolerate. But it makes no sense for us western powers to antagonize the people of Iran on top of their country’s indefensible leadership, when what we should be doing is fomenting the internal cultural overthrow of their rulers. They must do it of their own volition. Satrapi shows us that the Iranian people do not easily forget their foes: they resented Kuwaiti participation in the Iran-Iraq war enough that they cared little if the Gulf War left both Iraq and Kuwait in ruins, and the abuses of the Shah have left them permanently cynical about western powers who claim to be in the region for human rights and not for oil.

The real battle is a propaganda war—and in times of prosperity, the chauvinistic romanticization of martyrdom of the government has the upper hand. Satrapi left Iran in the 1990s, and a lot can change in a decade, but the Iran she remembers is one where the people are at a crossroads: on one hand, they receive the imagery of western life over illicit satellite television; on the other, the government has beaten them into submission to the point where they accept a fundamentalist life as the way things are. In this milieu, the emancipated woman is homeless, a citizen of an Iran that no longer grants her the rights and protections that citizens should rightly expect.

Why, then, is it significant that Satrapi chose to deliver her memoir in the form of a graphic novel?

Consider that Islam has traditionally positioned itself in strict opposition to representational art. Islamic art has a proud and extensive history of producing abstract patterns of a geometric intricacy that we are only beginning to describe with mathematics, but that is in part because of Islam’s injunction on mimesis as a second-rate mockery of God’s work. Remember the furore over the Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad? Never mind the prophet: cartooning is itself an irreverent offence. Artistic controversies happen inside Iran too.

Late in Persepolis, Satrapi relates the story of how an illustrator with whom she worked was beaten for drawing a cartoon based on the tale of Rapunzel, but with a bearded man atop the tower in Rapunzel’s place. But why the substitution at all? Because the artist knew it was forbidden to draw a woman without a veil, so Rapunzel had to move aside.

As a story in pictures, Persepolis lets us see the people who are invisible in the media: Iranian women in their homes, with their veils off, but their curtains shuttered so their neighbours can’t see. It is an act of remembrance for the promise of an Iran that could have been, had the theocratic powers that govern Iran not shoved that promise in a closet, and had the rest of the world not believed them.


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6 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Persepolis

  1. Without the time to read through the whole review (yet):

    or, if you will, between Iraq and a hard place


    Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 11:15am

  2. I’m interested to hear what you thought of the movie. I don’t often think that movies based on books (if the book it’s based on is a great book, as this one was) are ever any good. But the film adaptation of Persepolis really maintains the visual style of the graphic novel.

    Monday, 29 December 2008 at 11:12am

  3. I haven’t read the book but I really loved the whole feel of the movie. It made Iran look “different” compared to the image of the country that we see everyday in the news. We saw moderates, liberals and an actual middle class that a lot of people from liberal democracies from all over the world could relate to.

    Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 5:31am

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