Monday, July 28, 2008
monday book review: the complete persepolis, by marjane satrapi
I am not a comic book person. Honestly, I'm not even a "graphic novel" person. But I love art, and I love stories, and I love it when stories teach me things, so I figured that I couldn't go wrong with a book that managed to combine these three loves. Thus, when I realized I could trade a few crappy old movies for The Complete Persepolis, I was so excited that I actually did a little dance in my dining room. True story. (I love Swaptree!) But I digress...

If you've read Art Spiegelman's brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus: A Survivor's Tale, then you should easily be able to wrap your head around Persepolis - a memoir in the form of a graphic novel. (Or, rather, several graphic novels, since both Spiegelman and Satrapi chose to release their stories in multiple volumes. I am reviewing The Complete Persepolis, which is actually two graphic novels: The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return.) Like Maus, Persepolis uses art to tell a personal story while also educating its reader on a particular history and culture. Also like Maus, it's brilliant and wholly worth your time, even if you, like me, claim that comic books aren't really your thing.

Persepolis is the coming-of-age story of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman who is both the author as well as the protagonist. Her story begins in 1980 when Marjane was 10 years old. The Iranian Revolution had just taken place the previous year, and thanks to it, Marjane and her educated, liberal mother are both forced to wear the traditional Islamic veil. Coming from a very free-thinking household, the Satrapis have a difficult time adhering to the new regime, and Marjane's childhood is full of rebellion. She loves punk music, refuses to wear her veil properly, delights in pointing out the hypocrisy of her teachers, and follows her parents on political demonstrations. Eventually, her parents recognize that Marjane's outspokenness is putting her in increasing danger, so at age fourteen she is sent to live in Vienna where she experiences freedom and liberation, but also learns what it's like to be a Iranian immigrant in Western society. After spending four years in Vienna, Marjane returns home to Iran and discovers that while her Iranian heritage made her an outsider in Europe, her Western life has made her an outsider in her own homeland.

For a simply drawn, black-and-white graphic novel, Persepolis is a complex little thing. It's a breeze to read, yet incredibly thought-provoking. I think I learned more about the history of modern Iran from this book than I had from reading any number of newspaper and magazine articles on the subject. Furthermore, I gained an empathy for the Iranian people that one can't truly get from a newspaper or a magazine. While it's easy to dismiss the majority of Iranians as religious and political extremists, Marjane's story suggests that many Iranians are more like her - scared, rebellious and frustrated with the regime - than like the extremists the media tends to focus on. It's easy to see a veil rather than a individual, however Marjane's story reveals that although our politics may be different, we really have more things in common than we have differences to separate us.

All-in-all, I may not love comic books, but I loved Persepolis. It's smart, edgy, funny and sad, and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.

Marjane Satrapi
352 pages, 2003, 20007

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Blogger cornshake said...

ah, i gave this out as Christmas presents last yr. we just saw the dvd earlier this wk and it was really beautifully made. young marjane is adorably voiced.

Blogger Bibliolatrist said...

Great review - you reminded me that I need to check this out.

Blogger Abs said...

I hadn't heard of this before, but I'm glad word is getting around; my friend is married to a very nice Iranian man and they've been over to Iran several times. My friend has told me a bit about her husband's family, especially his sister, and the way the law enforcement tends to be stricter towards election time. The type of veil and way they're worn, for instance, changes a bit. You'd never hear about that through official channels or regular articles.

Blogger Grant Faulkner said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your review. Above all, I really appreciated this unique perspective on Iranian history--suddenly the newspaper articles are quite different, and I even have a new angle on my memories of the Shah's downfall, the American hostages, the Ayatollah, etc.

As I wrote in Lit Matters, the key to this memoir is the child's point of view. The urgency of her desires--which are just the normal desires of a child--provide a stark contrast to the Iranian regime. The limitations she's put under as a result provoke deeply meaningful questions about the importance of self-expression and the risks that are worth taking for it.

I'm intrigured by the form of the comic book for this story. Like you, it was a breezy read for me, yet serious and thought provoking. Sometimes I felt as if the comic book form minimized the horror of it all. I'm still thinking about this.

Thanks for your review.

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