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A Graphic Memoir

August 29, 2010

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return, 2006.

My memoir spree continues – with a comic book. Marjane Satrapi depicts her childhood at the time of the Islamic Revolution and the Iraq-Iran war, her teenage years in Austria, and her subsequent return to Iran and marriage, ending with her migration to France at the age of twenty-five.

Both her black and white drawings and the accompanying text are plain – yet it works. By these simple means she is able to convey the everyday effects of revolution and war, the tragedies of friends or family lost to bombs or the regime’s prisons, and the irony of her left wing and well-off father defending the class system. She portrays human failings, including her own, in a straightforward, non-judgemental way. We get to know what it was like for one segment of Iranian society at that time.

I wondered what Sven Birkerts (see my post of 8th August) would have to say. Satrapi uses the straight time line that he sees as more typical of autobiography than memoir. Jamaica Kincaid used such a time line in Annie John, but Birkerts believed she achieved the double perspective of memoir through a retrospective narrative voice and a series of emblematic scenes (post of 16th August). Satrapi’s approach is slightly similar. She keeps to the timeline, allowing greater immersion in each period, but includes reflection unobtrusively so as not to break the illusion of being in the past. In one example her aunt panics when it appears their illicit party will be raided, and thrusts her new-born baby into Marjane’s arms before fleeing. The caption says: Since that day, I’ve had doubts about the so-called “maternal instinct.”

Like Kincaid, Satrapi also centres each chapter on specific events, such as the imposition of the veil, although there are many more such episodes, most of which can hardly be called emblematic, and they are treated with less depth than in Annie John. While this may be related to the huge difference between comic books and fine literary prose, the parallels are interesting.

Can we trust Satrapi’s picture of life in Tehran at that time? We should be aware of how a person’s background may affect the way they describe their world. Satrapi has been criticised as being orientalist: having grown up in a family whose outlook was already Westernised, it is said that her depiction of Islam is simplistic, dehumanising Muslims. I don’t agree. Her argument is not with Islam but with the regime, with its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and imposition of these extreme views on others. In the West, Iran is stereotyped as a fundamentalist country, but Satrapi’s books correct this view by showing the everyday lives of a group of ordinary people. Her work shows her love for her country and helps us see people in Iran as human beings like us – the opposite of what orientalism does.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    August 29, 2010 7:24 pm

    I too was torn by Satrapi’s book. It was very popular in the more forward looking communities in the Middle East and perhaps my expectations were too high. I am a great fan of the illustrated novel (comic book). I like the allegorical method the genre has to employ. There is a french video which is a faithful rendition of the book, which is the natural outcome for such a style of writing. I think Satrapi’s narrative style and the illustrations were great and appropriate to the story. It is the story itself that I felt was lacking. I don’t think in progressive Islamic societies that she is perceived as being anti-Islamic,and certainly there is nothing in the book to suggest that, quite the opposite in fact.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    September 2, 2010 11:36 am

    Thanks, Claire, it was good to get your perspective from living in the Middle East and knowing how Persepolis is viewed there. In what way did you feel the story was lacking? It was less artfully structured than the other memoirs I’ve read recently, and I did sometimes tire of the inclusive chronological succession of narrated events (or am I too influenced by Birkerts?). But I still loved the character of Marji and enjoyed following her journey into adulthood.

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