Among the passengers of the Jolly Swag, I am sure I come late to the discovery of Persepolis. I refer to the books Persepolis, and Persepolis2 and the movie Persepolis which here I treat as a single work of art.
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir and the animated movie based on it are doubly graphic. Lots of black ink is required to draw the burka-clad women who animate the scenes of the dark period in Iran’s history chronicled here. Her story opens in 1979—at the wrenching instant when the American embassy in Iran was taken over and the repressive regime of the Shah collided with the resurrection of religious fundamentalism.
At the time Marjanen was a ten-year-old, the only child of an engineer father and feminist mother. Throughout the story, her grandmother appears, with love, affection and forgiveness so archetypal, that her persona leaps off the page. The family created an environment for this child that was free from want. She was encouraged to be inquisitive, to think for herself, and be unafraid to express her ideas.
Persepolis proceeds along the multiple paths of Marjane’s next fourteen years. The readers get to peer into childhood’s end, the trajectory of hormonal adolescence, and the emergence of the young adult, and to look outward through her eyes at Iran’s historic crossroad. The perception by the political leadership and the people that the nation was effectively a colony of the West exploited for its oil resource and otherwise dismissed. The national spiral into a theocracy enlisted religion’s darkest tools to homogenize the minds of her people.
Persepolis 2 opens when Marjane is shipped from Iran to Austria at the age of fourteen. For the next four years, we live with her through all the stages of female adolescence in households where she is treated with disdain. Without the support of big sisters or nearby family, her independent nature is welcomed only by a spoiled bunch of nihilists. The common bond of her friends is their rejection of a society they are unable to fit in to.
She has all the shoves and tugs of every teen. In Iran she’d not be permitted the phases she agonized her way through–how to look, what substances to experiment with, depilation, and sex–all the while living with families who don’t like her, or with nuns who do what nuns do, and for a while, on the streets. She is an alien in a land with no love for her.
After four years of this life, she decides to return home to the love of her parents and her grandmother, but otherwise, a world equally cruel and turbulent, a fundamentalist nation where domestic animals are treated with more humanity than women. The second half of the book deals mostly with her next four years and ends when she leaves Iran forever
Today, Satrapi is a journalist, novelist, and film maker living in Paris. She is someone we will hear more from.
Persepolis and Persepolis2 are quick reads, an hour each if you read them for the story; an evening or more, if you run with the thoughts they provoke.