Review: ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi

Once again, Marji finds herself a rebel, briefly detained by the Revolutionary Guards for sporting Nike’s on the black market, struggling at school for announcing in class that, contrary to the teacher’s lies, there are a hundred times more political prisoners under the revolution than there were under the shah. Once again, Marji notes, it is the poor who suffer: while Marji attends a “punk” party for which his mother knitted him a sweater full of holes, peasant boys his age, armed with plastic keys. promising entry to paradise if killed, are sent into battle in the Iraqi minefields.

The culmination and turning point of this book is the war with Iraq. Satrapi is adept at conveying the numbing cynicism brought about by living in a city besieged by both Iraqi bombs and a local regime that uses war as a pretext to exterminate “the enemy within.”

When ballistic missiles destroy the house next to Marji’s, killing a childhood friend and her family, Marji’s parents decide to send her abroad. The book ends with a 14-year-old Marji, her palms pressed against the airport partition window, her face framed in a chador mask of horror, looking at her passed out mother and grieving father. “It would have been better to go,” concludes her older self.

Contemporary American cartoonists often tend to operate in a twilight zone of ironically diminished expectations – the automatons of Ben Katchor’s Lower East Side, the examination room of Daniel Clowes’ hospital. “Persepolis”, on the contrary, dances with drama and carefree spirit.

Satrapi’s drawing style is bold and lively. She paints a thick black on white ink, in a false naive pastiche of East and West. “Persepolis” deploys all the paranoid expressionism latent in the comic’s scale juxtapositions – the child overshadowed by threatening parents, potential rescuers overshadowed by giant policemen guarding the locked doors of a movie theater that has been set on fire – but when Satrapi portrays a schoolyard brawl, it’s straight out of the Persian miniature.

“Persepolis” was first published with huge success in Satrapi’s adopted France, where adult comics have long been a favored form. The English edition is accompanied by an introduction expressing the author’s desire to show Americans that Iran is not just a country of fanatics and terrorists. The book could hardly have come at a better time.

Iran, after all, is not the only Muslim country with a Westernized urban elite that has been decimated by dictatorship and impoverished by decades of war. It’s not hard to imagine a cartoon “Babylon” whose war-scarred author might not be as diplomatic as Satrapi in pointing out how the now-overthrown Frankenstein of his own country was built in from pieces made in the West and sold by its current “liberators”.

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