Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- May 17, 2003

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Marjane Satrapi
Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris
Pantheon, 153pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

"Sugar and spice and everything nice," we are assured, is what little girls are made of. We are never told what teenage girls are made of; perhaps it's better that we not know. But if the metamorphosis of girls from happy, obedient, parent-worshipping angels to sulky, defiant, hypersensitive teenagers is one that many parents are already too familiar with, what should we make of a French graphic novel that uses this very transition as one of its central themes?

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood has the advantage of being set in the exotic atmosphere of revolutionary Iran; the "childhood" is that of its Paris-based author, Marjane Satrapi, the daughter of Marxist intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of the last emperor of Persia. The present volume -- a sequel is planned -- depicts Satrapi's life from the age of six to 14, and shows the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath of oppression and war through her eyes.

In many ways, young Marjane is a typical girl. She plays with her friends, has crushes on boys and, in her teens, becomes obsessed with rock music, tight jeans, jewellery. Yet, in other ways, this only child is very much an individual. At six, she plans to grow up to be a religious prophet; later, reading comic books on dialectical materialism, she decides to become a Marxist revolutionary. The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War transforms her into a strident nationalist, and she finally matures into a teen so rebellious that she strikes a teacher for banning her from wearing jewellery, and is promptly expelled from school.

Satrapi paints an honest picture of her girlhood illusions. Marjane loves her parents, but they disappoint her. By comparison with her uncle Anoosh, a Leninist who helped create the breakaway socialist republic of Azerbaijan and who spent years in the shah's prisons, her father is not heroic enough, while her mother's protective rules make her seem like a "dictator" to the frustrated teen. Even the maternal instinct is deflated as a myth, when Marjane's aunt deserts her newborn baby during an air raid.

The grown-ups have their own collapsing illusions to face. For her parents and Anoosh, the revolution that swept the shah from power turns out to be an all-too-brief moment of triumph over tyranny. As sophisticated Marxists, they see Islamist rule as merely a temporary stage on the way to socialist democracy. In this assumption they are tragically mistaken; Anoosh is soon arrested and executed under the new regime.

Desperate for Marjane to complete her French schooling, her parents stay in Tehran. With their remaining friends, they manage to maintain a surreptitious version of their old life: at parties held behind drawn curtains, they drink alcohol, dance to music and play chess. But they also endure random searches, intimidation by revolutionary thugs, food shortages and Iraqi missile attacks. In the end, Marjane's expulsion settles the matter; she is too outspoken for her own safety, and her parents reluctantly decide to send her to school in Vienna.

Satrapi has made good use of her chosen art form. The nature of graphic novels -- pages chopped into illustrated frames, a low density of text -- means that sustaining a mood can be difficult, and even a classic work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus suffers from an overall flatness of tone. Yet, like Maus, Persepolis is capable of staging emotional ambushes, and one can find oneself unexpectedly blinking away tears evoked by a single well-drawn, well-timed frame. Satrapi also exploits the format's freedom to convey a child's imaginative view of a situation -- the execution of Anoosh, for example, is followed by a striking full-page illustration of Marjane floating through space, cut off from her moorings and her God.

With careful pacing, Satrapi packs a great deal of content into a mere 153 pages. Thus, we can experience the dramatic sweep of revolution and war, while still encountering moments as quiet and touching as the one in which Marjane watches her grandmother undressing each night for bed, shaking from her bra the fragrant jasmine flowers that she picks each morning and places next to her breasts.

Persepolis portrays the complexity and tragedy of Iran's recent history through the lens of a single family, a human-scale view of events far removed from the abstractions of pundits and policy wonks. Satrapi has said that her hope was partly to convince her fellow Europeans that "this other that is so scary, this other that belongs to the 'axis of evil' ... these people have a normal life." With luck, the English translation of this remarkable story about growing up will help to convince many North Americans of the same.