Author: Marjane Satrapi
Publication Date: 2000 (English translation 2003)
LC Call Number: PN 6747 .S 245 P4713 2003
Persepolis is a graphic novel memoir. In it, Marjane Satrapi recounts her childhood in Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There is a second part, but it was not included in the edition I read.
When I began reading this book, I was mostly ignorant of what happened in the Middle East at this period of history. I’m from the US and was a very young child at the time, so I don’t remember all of this happening. Satrapi recaps this history very quickly in the introduction—Great Britain and the United States organized a coup in the 1950s against the prime minister of Iran because he had nationalized the oil industry, putting the Shah in charge until 1979, when the Iranian revolution happened. Throughout the book, she describes how the revolution resulted in a very conservative religious society, which many Iranians, including her parents, resisted. She describes learning about history and the people she knew and members of her family who had been political prisoners. She describes attempting to gain some historical perspective by studying both philosophy and the history of the Arab invasion. She remembers bombings and deaths and being forbidden to attend school. But, of course, this is a memoir. She also recalls her own complicated relationship with religion, her love of Michael Jackson, and her maid’s crush on the neighbor. History is intertwined with Satrapi’s own experiences in a way that makes real the obvious fact that history has a real affect on people’s lives. Throughout the book, she uses a very simple style of black-and-white art that allows her to capture gestures or expressions very well, emphasizing what it felt like for her to live through these tumultuous times.
I really like this way of looking at history and wish for more of it. Because Satrapi is a child for most of the book, there is scope to explain what is happening and why in a way that doesn’t demand a great deal of preexisting knowledge on the part of the reader. At the same time, the fact that everything is told from Satrapi’s point of view means that there is an emotional connection that doesn’t happen when history is explained in a more abstract way. It’s humanizing, which is very important to me as a Western reader when reading about parts of the world that, just as the introduction points out, have been demonized as dangerous, backward, and fundamentalist. Satrapi hints at the importance of understanding the human dimensions of history when she writes about her school report. She writes about the historical context of the Arab conquest 1400 years earlier and is very proud of her work, but admits that her classmate’s report was the best: “a letter to her father in which she promised to take care of her mother and little brother” (86). The accompanying image shows the emotional impact that this has on all the students in the class; they are all crying. This book follows upon the work of the classmate rather than the report described by Satrapi herself; the important thing here is to recognize and acknowledge the people of the time.
So, with that in mind, the book tilts more toward memoir than history. You get a lot of the way that Satrapi thought when she was a child. The political situation seems as strange to her as it does to the reader. She talks with her friends about whose parents are playing what role in the revolution; they nearly attack a boy whose father was in the secret police, until her mother teaches her that she has to forgive him. She is upset to hear that her friend’s father has been tortured, but also excited to find that her own uncle was in prison for a longer period of time. These are just small examples, but the book is very much interested in the bizarre social situations that arise as a result of living in the midst of a revolution. In fact, everything that happens has to integrate into mundane, everyday life. This isn’t just because of the attempts to keep normal life going in the face of danger, as when her parents throw parties which they must hide from the authorities, but also because… that’s when these things happen. So there are many domestic scenes in which information is passed on or which are intruded upon by outsiders or old friends. There are school scenes, there are bombings walking home. And there is a lot about Satrapi growing up.
Persepolis is quite capable of speaking for itself, so no more of this from me. But I think that its reputation as a masterpiece is well-deserved. I very much enjoyed Satrapi’s voice throughout because she tells the story with clarity and directness. All the people she describes feel like real people, and their struggles are quite moving. I found the art style very effective; while simple, it was also very expressive. I enjoyed the humorous moments and her understanding of herself as a child. And of course, I think that the story she is telling is an important one. So I liked this very much, although parts of it were hard to read. I know that there is a sequel, but it wasn’t included in the edition I read, so perhaps I will hunt it down.