Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Complete Persepolis Review

Persepolis is one of those books that you sometimes hear about when people praise the comic medium, along the likes of Maus or American Splendor, but that I had personally never read. I knew it was a greatly praised autobiographical work, that it had been turned into an equally acclaimed animated film (which was nominated for an Oscar), and that it's author, Marjane Satrapi, was related to Iran, but little else. Luckily, my local library had a copy of The Complete Persepolis, which collects the four original books that make up this series, that allowed me to check this series out. Hit the jump for my review of it.

Written and Art by Marjane Satrapi

Like I mentioned above, the book is divided into four sections that follow the life of Marjane Satrapi as a child, a teenager, a young adult, and an adult. At the same time, each section is divided into small stories, usually revolving around interesting anecdotes or important and life changing events of Marjane's life. The book is in chronological order, but time changes sometimes happen without little indication as you pass from one story or section to the other, but it's never hard to follow.

(A quick side note, in my reviews I usually refer to authors by their last name, but after reading a whole book about people talking to or about her using her first name, I can't help but think of her as "Marjane", not "Satrapi". )

The first book is about Marjane as a child in the late 70's and early 80's, just about the time the "Islamic Revolution" happened in Iran. Marjane has to start dealing with the new changes that this means for her and her family, such as the one she opens the book with: before 1979, she did not have to wear a veil to school. Marjane comes from a wealthy and rather liberal (by Iranian standards) family, so it struck them particularly hard to have to deal with these changes put in place by the new religious rule. Still being very young, Marjane does what all child do, play with other kids, ask a lot of questions to her parents, and have conversations with God. Yes. Although it's all very child-like, and not as crazy as it might sound. Two relatives of here were killed in the societal upheaval of the time, and the book ends on a very traumatic note as Marjane angrily denounces God for his cruelty and the war between Iran and Iraq breaks out.

The second book deals with Marjane as a young teenager living in a literal war zone, and all the problems that such a thing entails. Marjane has to deal not only with the dangers of living in Tehran (the capital of Iran), which is bombed regularly, but with the increasing zealotry of the Guardians of the Revolution who enforce the laws of the Muslim religion. At the same time, our protagonist becomes more rebellious, listening to punk music, carrying her veil improperly, and at the end, having her first cigarette and suffering another personal tragedy in one of the bombardments. Her parents cannot stand that their daughter is in such peril, and decide to send her to study in Europe. With all the confusing feelings that such a change invokes, Marjane leaves her home country, and the second book ends.

While the first two books explain heavily what Iran is like, so the readers (presumably, people from other countries) would understand the culture and lifestyle of the people beyond what they would see in TV, the third book switches gears as Marjane experiences Europe through the eyes of an outsider. The outsider theme is one that is heavy in this third chapter, things that are commonplace to people in the Western world, shock Marjane as she makes new friends and acquaintances with all kinds of people. While still rebellious by nature, Marjane goes through some major changes, both physical and personality wise, but not exactly for the better. Eventually, Marjane becomes involved with the wrong kind of people and starts doing drugs, which along with some relationship drama, sends her off in a downward spiral that almost kills her. This (yet another) traumatic event induces another important change in her life, as Marjane decides to go back to her family in Iran.

The fourth book takes place, once again, in Iran, where Marjane finds herself to be an outsider too: her experiences in Europe make her an outcast from all her former friends and family. Many see her as decadent and she feels equally exiled by the changes the Iranian society has suffered in her absence: the religious fundamentalism is stronger than ever, and the long war with Iraq has left a huge toll in the population and the country. This eventually leads her to a depression and a failed suicide attempt that ultimately forces her to change her outlook in life. While obviously changed by the many events of her life, she is still attempting to stay true to herself, rebelling against injustice and closed minds. Marjane is now an adult, enrolls in an art college, and meets what would later be her first husband. Despite starting on very good terms and many attempts to make the relationship work, it eventually falls apart and Marjane divorces him. As the book ends, Marjane decides to leave for Europe again.

Despite what sounds like an incredibly depressing life story, which is indeed full of personal tragedy, Persepolis is actually a very funny book thanks to the many anecdotes and some great comedic timing in part of the author. This is a true drama, full of laughter and tears, and it is incredible sincere. You can't help but bond with the author as she opens up her life before your very eyes. She even includes parts of her life that she hadn't told her parents (her time in Austria), and the connection to the historical events makes it an even more compelling read. The art is simple, in black and white, and resembles the illustrations you would see in a children's book, but very expressive when it needs to be, and gets extra cartoon-y when the situational comedy calls for it.

The book is a real eye opener about how life in Iran is really like beyond what you see in TV. I'm a pretty world-y guy (having lived in three different countries and cultures so far), but I was surprised at my own ignorance of Iranian culture. If that doesn't sound particularly appealing to you, the author explains it simply and sometimes funnily enough that you find yourself caring and understanding more of how the Iranian society works. And even if that doesn't sound particularly interesting to you, you will still find plenty that will resonate within you. We have all had those anarchist friends that you later realize were kind of dumb, or those childhood stories that in retrospect have very different connotations. If you have fallen with the wrong crowd at some point of your life, or if you ever fell like an outsider, or if you have had trouble with relationships, you will relate with what Marjane goes through in this book. Her unique worldview is just an added bonus that makes the book more compelling.

Verdict - Must Read. Persepolis is a great autobiographical book that should be in everyone's bookshelf. It will make you laugh, maybe cry, and it's sincerity will definitely open your eyes and your heart. I cannot praise or recommend it enough.
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Daryll B. said...

I found the fact that some people vilified or railed against this book in the past to be humorous. This story has been told many times in many different cultures but the fascinating thing is that it is truly told by an Iranian perspective. It never condemns or glorifies, choosing to just reflect the woman's feelings. As a result I know I felt my mind stretched while reading it similar to reading Maus, a vertigo book or even a Dickens type classic.

Thank you Mrs. Satrapi for this.

Phillyradiogeek said...

Here is Philadelphia, the city has a program called "One Book, One Philadelphia," an attempt to encourage citizens to read one particular book and discussion of it. The latest selection made earlier this year was "Persepolis," the first graphic novel/collection ever selected for the program. It's definitely on my list of comics works to experience in the near future.

tworedhead said...

This is an amazing book. I have used it with my youth group kids to show them exactly how the world outside their little Midwestern town really is.


Matt Ampersand said...

Daryll: I read that it was criticized by the Iranian government. Considering it didn't paint them in a very positive light, I'm not surprised, but that's the kind of thing you would expect from a government like that. Who else rallied against this book?

Daryll B. said...

Matt believe it or not there were muslims within America who looked upon her in the "Rushdie" type light when Pers.. was up for several literary awards.

Shocking to me because anyone who has spent ANY time within American society should be used to autobiographical materials.

Anonymous said...

@Daryll B: I don't know of any western Muslims rallying against the book. It's not really a critique on Islam, just on authoritarianism. Most Muslims in the States live there to escape these kind of regimes; they may be conservative but at the end of the day we just want to live our lives freely.

I personally loved the book and movie. I'm not Persian, but the story is very similar to the experiences of my family as well as other Libyan families that recall better, more open days before Gadaffi.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Daryll: I have to admit I looked up what "Rushdie" meant.

@Anonymous: It's true that it's more a critique on authoritarianism. It is such a fine line though, and the fact that the regime was fueled by the religious zealotry of a section of society, that I can see why they would see it as a critique on Islam instead. What it did point out though, was the flaws of men and women that worked for or with the government (such as The Guardians of the Revolution being bribed, or the hypocrisy of the policy on what men and women are allowed to wear in the University), and that was bound to rub the government the wrong way. I'm sure it earned the author some anger from the people that are in charge of presenting the men that work for the government as infallible agents of righteousness.

Daryll B. said...

@Anonymous: That's why I found it shocking. Anyone who has read it sees that it isn't attacking the faith, just hypocrisy of those in power positions in her opinion / point of view; inside and outside the faith. Here in NY they will give anyone with a grievance airtime no matter how little they are informed about the art.

Anonymous said...

I have had to read Persepolis and watch it in my lit class. I have enjoyed watching and reading it. It seems like something that good actually happen during the Iraq Iran war. It is also very interesting and it kept me wanting more.

Kelsey B said...

We are watching the film Persepolis in class as we try to read the boo. This blog is perfect as a complete overview of the Iranian state of government, and how a rebellious teen to woman flourishes with her self identity in a country where she can never even show her hair! said...

Bravo! I too have never read Persepolis despite hearing only positive praise, but this is the first time anyone has bothered to adress what its actually about and what relates to. Sounds interesting, I plan to give it a read.

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