Satrapi’s Persepolis And The Elegance Of The Simple, Well-Told Story

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I finally got around to reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  I tend to feel a little guilty reading “comic books”– even well respected ones, and often will valiantly and self-denyingly shunt them aside and pick up instead some thick tome on some “respectable” subject.  However, it has been slowly getting through my thick skull during the last few years that illustrated books are not just for children… not by a long shot.

Another reason I put off Persepolis is that I just didn’t think it would be my thing.  I was expecting a story about a teen girl struggling with her heritage while coming to age in a foreign society– some story in which peer pressure and the veil would surely figure prominently, and probably issues of sexuality.  Member of the Oprah Book Club, I’m not… so I delayed…

But no… this is the story of a smart and sensitive young girl living in Iran with her progressive Iranian family during the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The simple, black and white artwork of the story is just so-so, but the author knows her limitations, and achieves an elegance in her simple style.

I don’t know how true the personal details in the story are… but the artistry of the writer in presenting the right details in the right way make us, the readers, FEEL like its real, and thus, we find ourselves relating to everything going on, and caring about the turns of events.  And the humor that flows throughout the book not only helps to keep the human drama from becoming too overwhelming, but also serves to make the serious scenes all the more touching.

Reading the book, we get the feeling –from these details of domestic life offered– that the main character is growing up in a privileged household and is being raised with perhaps a too liberal education (her comic book selection includes one called Dialectic Materialism).

Our girl is no frivolous child.  She is, in fact, quite serious…  She talks to God, has ambitions to become a prophet in the Zarathustra style, and very earnestly wishes to make the world a better place.  She even begins a book of rules that will serve her as “scripture.”  Needless to say, she wins over our hearts easily, and we begin to care for her.

She is trying so hard to build for herself a set of values– but she is receiving many conflicting opinions from all sides.  She hears stories of torture and heroes and revolution that begin to sink deeply into her psyche and show up in her games.  She grows confused…  Who are the heroes?  Who are the villains?

The story covers the time of the Shah’s overthrow, the rise to power of the fundamentalists, the horrible war with Iraq… and it is painful to read as wave after wave of fear and sorrow wash over this little girl and her family and her community.  And even young readers can’t help but ruminate upon the folly and tragedy and waste of war and of tyrannical religious fanaticism.

Here again, the details turn what could have been a thinly disguised polemic or a woe-was-me pity party into something greater and more sublime.  Some of these details are small things when compared to the hell descending from the skies in the form of missiles sent from Saddam– but it is precisely these little things that fill out the life in which we are allowing ourselves to be absorbed.

Soon after the revolution, the girl is having to wear a veil, of course– an unignorable symbol whenever Islamic fundamentalism is at issue.  She also is separated from her friends who are boys when she goes to school.    After the U.S. Embassy is taken over, she overhears her parents say that this means there is no chance of getting a visa to America, since visas come from the embassy.  And the day to day procurement of food and shelter and healthcare can no longer be taken for granted.  In one perfect little detail, the girl’s mother tapes the glass in the windows so there will be less shards scattered throughout the house the next time a missile lands nearby.

The story does not spell-out for us exactly why our young, sincere heroine turns into a rebellious, punked-out, smart-mouthed teenager– as neither does real-life always fully explain the perplexing and frustrating choices of the adolescent.  Nevertheless, we are given clues…  She has been raised to do her own thinking, and has overheard her liberal-minded parents speaking of the new State authority with great disdain.

Also, and perhaps most importantly of all, she has learned early and deeply that the world of adults is filled with stupid people doing stupid things that cause good people to suffer… to be imprisoned, to be tortured, to be killed.

These are just some of the surface reasons why any kid might turn punk, and so we understand when she rebels against the straitjacket the fundamentalist regime is trying to impose upon her life.  She has been raised to be trouble in a world where trouble-makers are NOT treated with great forbearance.

I recommend this book to anyone, any age, living in any era.

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