Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

 This week for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Satrapi is only five years older than me. The Complete Persepolis is her memoir, a coming of age story. When she writes about her childhood it's the time of my own childhood and she mentions some of the political events and important people I remember seeing on the news during those days. But with one big difference.

Marjane Satrapi is Iranian and she's writing about her life in Iran (and, later, Vienna).

One day she was a secular ten-year-old student in a co-educational French school in Tehran. The next day she was attending an all girls school, wearing a veil, and spending part of each school day beating herself in solidarity with the martyrs.

The story follows young Marjane from the early days of the Islamic Revolution to her decision to leave home as a twenty-five year-old woman.

The author is an artist, and has written her story in comic book style: a graphic memoir. I don't tend to pick up graphic novels or memoirs as I have this idea that I don't like them. But I'm always appreciative when a book club encourages me to stretch outside of my comfort zone and I really enjoyed this book (as I did Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, another book club read).

Satrapi's combination of a few well-chosen words alongside "deceptively simple" pictures (for so I've seen them described everywhere this book is reviewed) somehow manages to say more than many hundreds of pages of dense text might have conveyed.

The Complete Persepolis is really two books published in one volume: Persepolis and Persepolis 2, both originally written in French. I'm glad to have read both volumes - indeed I was unsure where one stopped and the next started so I read the book through in one late-night gulp - but I enjoyed the first one more.

Persepolis is about the fascinating events of the Islamic Revolution and what it was like to be a child in a particular sort of family in that environment, experiencing things far beyond my own childhood experiences and eventually normalizing them.

Persepolis 2 is the story of Satrapi's years away from Iran, in high school in Europe, followed by her early adult years back in Iran. In Persepolis 2 I was less caught up by the historic events sweeping up the main character and far more frustrated by her self-destructive choices.

The two pieces together form a cohesive whole, transitioning the main character from a child drawn along by her circumstances to an adolescent struggling to control her own life and finally to an adult managing her world with confidence.

I learned a lot from this book, but not in such a way that I felt like I was learning; it was always the story that drew me onward. And in today's world - with Iran part of the "axis of evil" and a presumptive 2012 presidential candidate calling for the U.S. to declare war on Iran - I feel just a little bit more informed about this ancient country and her complex people.

Highly recommended.

From an interview with the author:
"When you are also very young, it’s so difficult all the time justifying yourself because of your nationality. A simple question that for everyone is a one-word answer to “Where do you come from?” -- “I am French.” For an Iranian, it’s a one-hour explanation: “I am Iranian but, I am Iranian but…”

How do you answer that question now, as opposed to when you were young?

When you are young you hate to answer that question. Well, today I just say “I am Iranian,” and they say “You are Iranian?” and I say “Yes, it is a fact, I am Iranian. I was born there, I have black hair. Yes, I am an Iranian person, what can I do?” Since writing the book, nobody can tell me “Give me some explanation.” I think now my explanation is just “Read the book and you’ll see.” This book has permitted me not to talk so much anymore. People have read the book so they see what my situation is.

So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?

I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country."

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