3 May 2008

Marjane Satrapi - Persepolis

This has been highly rated for several years, and a film of it has just been released, so I decided to buy it and read it before watching the film. Previously I'd been put off by the high price of the two hardback volumes, but Vintage have published a combined edition in paperback.

Marjane Satrapi is a 38 year old Iranian woman, well-educated, of good middle-class upbringing, and an estimable heritage - a 19th century ancestor was the Shah of Persia. Persepolis is the story of her upbringing, during the Iranian revolution and the rule of the ayatollahs since, told as a graphic novel.

As Satrapi was about 10 at the time of the revolution, her memories of it are sparse, although she does recall witnessing demonstrations against the Shah, in which her parents participated. Then, after the Shah went into exile, life in Iran changed significantly. The most obvious change was in dress policy - women had to wear a headscarf, so that no hair was visible. As she was so young, Satrapi and her schoolfriends saw it as a bit of a joke, just a new school uniform to get used to. As she grew older, she became more aware of the restrictions - on make-up, and pop music, and any Western influences - and, as a spirited girl, was subtly resistant to them.

Her resistance became risky, in a country where dissent was no game - close relatives had been arrested and executed, but with the fearlessness of youth she was outspoken at college against clothing restrictions, and risked expulsion, or worse. Her parents decided she should go away for a while, so sent her to Vienna.

Up to this point her story could have been a general one, albeit in a, to us, extraordinary situation. Her experience stood in for those of many Iranians of her generation, and by telling it she was illuminating a little exposed part of the world. There are quibbles with that - she was relatively privileged in her family and income, and while her relatives might have been at risk from the regime because of their positions or activism, she was also slightly protected by that status. She was not from the masses, and she doesn't show a great inclination to identify with them - this is her story, and becomes indivdually so when she goes to Europe.

Her experience in Vienna isn't so happy. At first she's lonely, she knows no German, and not many people she studies with know French or Persian. She becomes part of an odd group, takes drugs, occasionally to excess, certainly for too long, and, after a failed relationship, has a breakdown which culminates in hospitalisation for pneumonia. She returns to Iran, to art college, gets married, but is restricted by life there, and in the end leaves for France.

The trouble I had with the book in parts is that large sections of it are about her adolescent problems, particularly the parts in Vienna. She indulges in her isolation, the fact that she's a foreigner and no one understands her. She doesn't show any recognition that she was lucky to have the facility to go to Europe to study when her parents didn't consider Iran to be safe for her, nor that she has the choice to go to France at the end, that many other don't have. But then, stories aren't written by including all possible alternative lives, so this is unapologetically Satrapi's own story.

And it's told very well - she's witty, occasionally poignant, and literate. The animation is spare, just black and white with few intermediate shades, which creates a simple style. It's hard to know whether the success of the book is down to the fact that it's a graphic novel aimed at a memoir audience, or to the unfamiliar and exotic origin of the story, or to the quality of the composition. I suppose a bit of each. I was a bit put off her personally when I read an interview in which she said she'd never met anyone smarter than herself - a precocious statement as a teenager, but insufferable at her age. But that doesn't affect the work, which despite my few misgivings, is definitely worthwhile.



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