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A Powerful Autobiographical Tale in Graphic Novel Form
on January 15, 2008
THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS brings together in one softbound volume two graphic novels published earlier in English (translated from French): PERSEPOLIS 1 - THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD, and PERSEPOLIS 2 - THE STORY OF A RETURN. As a single volume, Ms. Satrapi's work reads as a seamless story of an Iranian woman's maturation from a young girl in the Shah's (and Ayatollah Khomeini's) Iran to her high school years in Austria, back to the Iran attacked by Saddam Hussein and then transformed into a fundamentalist Islamic state, and finally back again to Europe as a young adult. The book's title is borrowed from the name of ancient Persia's ceremonial capital, dating back some 2,500 years, although Persepolis is in fact the Greek translation of the original Persian name, Parsa.
The story is strictly autobiographical, rendered as a memoir of childhood and young adulthood. Satrapi begins her story at age ten, the daughter of well-educated and well-off parents who put a premium on their daughter's religious and academic independence. Marjane's parents prod their pre-adolescent daughter toward a liberal education and encourage her to speak out. However, being a rebel against oppression in Iran leads inevitably to trouble and expulsion from school. Her parents recourse is to pack young Marjane off to Austria, isolated and alone in a foreign and far more secular culture. A series of mostly negative experiences leads her back to her homeland and an unsuccessful marriage during the early years of Iran's fundamentalist revolution with its growing religious oppression. When the young adult Marjane and her parents finally realize that her future lies not in Iran but in Europe, she heads off to France where she still lives today.
Ms. Satrapi characterizes herself as the perennial outsider wherever she lives. As a young girl, political and religious events contradict her upbringing and isolate her from the accepted beliefs and behaviors. The author conveys her childhood desperation by repeated depictions of herself talking to an ancient, white-bearded God, even cradled in his arms. She is even more the outsider in Austria, forever fumbling in her discoveries of Western culture only to become enslaved by some of its worst features. Returning to Iran after her high school years, Marjane is too Westernized to be Iranian, yet still too Iranian to feel Western. The author's journey to self-discovery and finding her true home serves as the core of her story, punctuated by her departures and arrivals. In fact, some of the most dramatic scenes in THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS take place at airports.
Satrapi's black-and-white cartooning emphasizes contrast over detail. Indeed, her drawings of people are exceedingly simplified, lacking in all except the basic features necessary to portray a character. This simplicity works, as it stands in stark contrast to the complexity of Iran's constantly changing social, political, and religious structures as well as the complexity of the author's own life and the choices she faced. These minimalist renderings, hardly more detailed than Schulz's "Peanuts" characters, create an even greater dissonance when their childlike simplicity clashes with the horrors of war and the Iranian government's seizures and executions of many of its citizens. The reader is so effectively lulled into this seemingly benign, comic book world that Satrapi's occasional dropping of an expletive into her character's thoughts or words has the force of a slap in the face. When young Marjane returns home to see the dead, braceleted arm of one of her neighborhood friends (killed by one of Saddam Hussein's missiles) extending from her wrecked home, the author resorts to the powerful simplicity of a completely black panel captioned, "No scream in the world could have relieved my suffering and my anger."
There is a natural temptation to compare PERSEPOLIS to Art Spiegelman's MAUS I and MAUS II. However, I believe the Maus books are sui generis, allegorical tales whose use of mice and cats puts Spiegelman's books in a class of their own. By contrast, Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS novels are autobiographical volumes rendered in illustrated form to trace an Iranian woman's struggle to find herself while still loving a country from which she feels irretrievably estranged. Satrapi's and Spiegelman's work complement one another and demonstrate the emotional power graphical novels are increasingly finding ways to achieve.