Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

9780099523994Persepolis, as I think everyone in the world knew apart from me, is the autobiography of a young Iranian girl, told in graphic form. I don’t think I would have found and read it for myself without the recommendation of a friend. Certainly, the news had not reached my desert island hermitage that it has been made into a highly successful animated film (which I must now make a point of seeing). Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her life as a child (in part 1) and a young adult (in part 2) growing up in Iran, and then in exile, and then returning home. This life spans the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the revolutionary regime that replaced his rule. It is a matter-of-fact, stubborn, brave and often funny account of living in dangerous times and having to grow up too fast.

The graphic format is brilliant from several points of view – it reminded me constantly of the persona of the heroine. Her image was always before me, in virtually every frame, as a little girl, then a growing teenager, then an exiled teenager, then a young adult, returning home. The combination of image and words means that the story is conveyed with pace and immediacy. The emotional punch is shared between image and words, and all the stronger for that. I’ve said I am not sure if I’d have found this autobiography to read for myself, but still less do I think I would have embarked on reading it as a written memoir, and if I had I’m not sure if I’d have finished it. As it is, the graphic format pulled me along with it, though I had to go back from time to time to remind myself of the very complex family relationships described at the beginning when the scene is being set.

Marjane (Marji) is the only child of prosperous, cosmopolitan parents, secure in their lifestyle under the old regime. The first she knows of change is being told, uncomprehending, to wear a veil to go to school. Her parents try to balance survival as a family with taking part in street protest, their former status a distant dream; but others in their family are not so secure, and several of her male relatives are imprisoned, executed or just disappear. The author is outstanding at conveying just how much meaning that had for an intelligent child and what she noticed and failed to notice. As Marji grows into her teens, the repression and war footing with Iraq make life unimaginably dangerous for her family and friends. She has to grow up fast, and the risks she and all around her had to run are seared on my mind. She wants clothes and sneakers and music and posters, just like any teenage girl in the West. She wants to think for herself. Her parents finally can bear it no longer, and to keep her safe, as they think, find a way to send her to Vienna to school. She is 15 years old. How Marji navigates western life and values and the new and different cruelty and risk she encounters there make for equally bleak reading, until, four years older, she finds the lesser of two evils is to return home to Iran.

One theme is bleakness, risk, danger and loss of hope; another is resilience, personal autonomy, survival and strength of mind. Ultimately the latter wins, and that carried me through. Marji is fortunate to survive, and learns to negotiate a fraught world with intelligence and raw cunning. The conditions in which she grew up, at home and in Europe, would daunt anyone, but her character is forged in the crucible of the most volatile and dangerous times. Her life is told through a series of vignettes, any or all of which are completely outside the life experience of a comfortably-raised western girl. Marji is portrayed as the antithesis of the perfect heroine much of the time – she’s a naughty girl, a stroppy teenager, a defiant young adult. Her saving grace is that she loves and is loved by her parents and grandmother, who wish only the best for her, without knowing what that might be as the foundations of their world are knocked out. Marji behaves both badly and bravely, all the time with the knowledge of the haven of her loving family either there to catch her when she falls, or as a distant memory and dream of the ultimate bolt-hole while she is sent away from her home.

It is hard to describe reading Persepolis, except to say that the effect on me was profound. I think that, as described on the cover, it will stay with me for a very long time. Marjane Satrapi has the genius to describe a human condition that we can all relate to, and the terrifying conditions in which it is lived that are totally outside our experience in the West, all at once; while the narrative is shot through with a sense of adventure, of being truly alive and loving life while it is precious and so precarious, and with a biting wit. The vignettes are great short stories, woven together to make a whole life and world. Reading Persepolis right now, at this moment in history, could not be more relevant and instructive. The insight I gained was that from where I sit I could only dimly share what Marji had lived, of been repressed as a woman, of losing her freedom, of being under direct attack from weapons of war, of seeing the lives of family and friends ruined or snuffed out, and bearing it all with stoic courage. So how justified are this country and its allies in contemplating the risk of visiting any such terror and danger on the people of Syria, even for a principle? There has to be a path to justice with peace to pursue first with all humility. I read this unique work, and it personalises what our intervention might mean for people not unlike Marji, but already suffering worse privation and danger than she did. With less bitterness than regret the author describes the contribution of the West to her country’s woes in the 80s and 90s, arming both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, then sitting back while each side weakened the other. Thought-provoking as a description of Persepolis scarcely begins to cover it.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis I & II. London: Vintage, 2009 (paperback ed). 352pp
ISBN 13: 9780099523994

9 comments on “Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

  1. Rhoda Baxter
    August 30, 2013

    I’d heard of Persepolis, but hadn’t read a review until now. It sounds very interesting. I don’t normally read autobiographies, but if I come across if, I would definitely pick this one up. Great review, thoughtfully written. Thanks.

  2. Mystica
    August 30, 2013

    This must be a difficult book to read and not get overwhelmed by it. Thanks for a good review.

  3. Fanny/iz4blue
    August 30, 2013

    Great review! I occasionally love graphic novels who’s power something gets underestimated. I was so pleased the movie did justice to the books. If you missed this does that mean you also missed the Maus series by Art Spiegelman? If so you must make amends!🙂

  4. heavenali
    August 31, 2013

    Persepolis is the first and only graphic novel I have read. I read it under sufferance for a book group, and although I enjoyed it more than I thought I would I did have an odd relationship with it. I think the starkness of the imagery suited the subject perfectly, and I was amazed at how involved with the characters I felt. I was also really swept up in the story, the fear and dangers, the problems of being a teenager were brilliantly portrayad.However I missed text – I missed words – i hadn’t realised how much I love having words in front of my eyes. Also – in the copy I read the small amount of text there was was so tiny that it quite literally hurt my eyes. It is an astonishing piece of work though and unforgetable.

  5. Jackie
    September 2, 2013

    This is a terrific review! You put so many layers into it: the story itself, the medium in which it’s told, the historical and feminist context and how the novel influenced your opinion of current events. Truly well done!

  6. Hilary
    September 3, 2013

    Thank you all for your positive comments. It really was a case of the right book at the right (or wrong) time. It certainly helped me, not to understand the issues in the middle east, I wouldn’t dream of thinking I can do that, but to acquire even the vaguest notion that there are no absolutes, that there are real people struggling to live their lives and express themselves in terrible circumstances, and that we need to understand the consequences of decisions to act or not in those terms.

    Heavenali, it was a distinct culture shock for me to deal with the comic strip format, and I do know what you mean about the size of some of the text! I felt somehow that this was how the author handled the degree of distance she needed to put between the shocking times and events she lived through in order to make them bearable, for us, and maybe for her too (I don’t know).

    Fanny, the amends I have to make would fill a bookcase, and in fact they do! Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Pingback: Book Review: “Persepolis”- Marjane Satrapi | lifeofafemalebibliophile

  8. Persepolis
    May 29, 2014

    Persepolis used to the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia (ca. 550-330 BC). This historical region constitutes of the ruins of various magnificent structures such as Apadana Palace and the throne Hall. It is also UNESCO world heritage site.

  9. Pingback: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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