by Marjane Satrapi
I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts together on this book. Originally published in France by L'Association, then translated and published here in two volumes several years ago, this new complete edition was too cool-looking for me to pass up buying. Not to mention that I have to HEAR ABOUT this thing constantly, what with the movie coming out, media coverage, etc., so I guess I got worn down. Despite its generally pretty favorable reviews, this book always struck me as getting its attention more from the fact of it being a graphic novel than from any real intrinsic quality.
And I think, largely, that I was right. I finished the book yesterday, and while it was a fairly enjoyable read, I didn't feel any especial frisson upon finishing it, or sadness that I was done. In fact, and most damningly, I spent most of the time I was reading it imagining how much more effective it would be as a movie. I can't really say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I think generally that in cases of ambivalence in art, it's usually a bad sign.
The book, which is Marjane Satrapi's memoir of growing up in fundamentalist Iran, is most effective when portraying the different facets of Persian society: not only the oppressive theocratic government, but also the lives of the people living under that government. Satrapi humanizes the country of Iran for Westerners--it is always easy to forget that the actions of a nation's government are often at odds with its populace, and Persepolis makes it clear that the image of Iran we see through the media is one-dimensional. As a daughter of a liberal-minded family, Satrapi is constantly having to masquerade as an appropriately subservient female whenever she leaves the house, throughout the book. Not only that, but the suggestion is that in the Tehran of Persepolis, most of the populace ascribes to the fundamentalist position out of simple fear, and this is repeated often in the actions of the Satrapi family. It's an effective device for portraying Persian society in general as largely paying lip-service to their totalitarian rulers.
But Persepolis fails in several key places--the most obvious of which is graphically. Which is not to malign the art, which for all its simplicity and occasional roughness is clear and easy to follow; rather, it's that this is a comic at all. It is hard to imagine how this book is better as a graphic novel than it would be as a simple prose memoir, or even as a movie. Whereas other recent graphic novel memoirs have used the language of comics in a way so sophisticated and intrinsic to the story's telling that it's hard to imagine them as anything BUT comics--I'm thinking specifically of David B.'s Epileptic and Craig Thompson's Blankets--Persepolis is merely a memoir told in comics. Marjane Satrapi's choice of comics as vehicle for her story is not a bad one, but it's not a particularly inspired one, either.
The other surprising weak point for me was Satrapi herself--though it's easy to root for her during much of the first part of the book, as she grows up under the twin oppressions of the Iranian government and the attendant strict Muslim observance, it becomes harder to sympathize with her the older she gets. During the part of the story in which she's a student in Vienna, I kept waiting for something to happen of importance. Instead, it was just a lot of drug use, fringe politics, and nihilism, which unsurpringly ended up with Satrapi feeling alone and damaged. When she finds her boyfriend in bed with another woman, she has a breakdown and ends up returning home. After the gravitas of the early part of the book, her anguish over this turn in her life seems misplaced and almost petulant--it seems to suggest that, having left the stifling atmosphere of Tehran for progressive Vienna, she finally had the freedom to waste time and do drugs, but somehow life treated her unfairly by not working out. While this is probably a pretty common idea at 19, her age when these events occurred, you would think that Satrapi would have changed her outlook by her 30's, when she made the book. She sums it up best herself:
"Next to my father's distressing report, my Viennese misadventures seemed like little anecdotes of no importance. So I decided that I would never tell them anything about my Austrian life. They had suffered enough as it was."
??? This marked the end of my investment in Marjane Satrapi as a character in her own memoir. What had seemed somehow important near the beginning sounded dramatically less so now--maybe that's just a reflection on my expectations going into the book. But by the end Satrapi's story seems pretty pedestrian, with the exception of its setting. While her life is hardly banal or boring, it's rarely remarkable past her interaction with her environment. Besides growing up under an oppressive and brutally violent religious regime, her problems are not much different than most young adults: identity, self-worth, direction. Her choices don't seem any more heroic than those confronting any other young person struggling to decide what they will do with their lives.
In the end, Persepolis is valuable for its depiction and humanization of Iranian society--it's hard to imagine a country more maligned in all the world, both now and throughout the last several decades. Seeing the culture from the inside; imagining what it must be like to come home and find your neighbor's home destroyed and your neighbor dead; seeing the forced duality of the citizens, in their attempts to appear observant but still lead free lives: all these things are very eye-opening in a memoir. The problems of an intelligent girl who had a bad breakup and lives on the streets for a few months; not as much. I enjoyed Persepolis, and found it very thought-provoking, which alone was worth the price of admission. But on the whole I think much of the hype surrounding this book is that an Iranian expatriate published a memoir as a graphic novel. I suspect the same book as prose would have been wholly unremarkable, and much less likely to yield the critical attention it has received.