It’s an odd thing to say that a work situated in a war-torn country with an oppressive regime is fun to read, but Persepolis is fun, among other things. Sure, it’s a fun read because it’s a well-drawn graphic novel, but it’s really the lively and mischievous point of view of its heroine, Marjane, a precocious and preternaturally rebellious child, that gives the book its singular force.
The story starts during the turbulent years surrounding the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the government overthrown, theocracy introduced, and war with neighboring Iraq. But a kid wants to have fun, explore, learn, hang out, screw around, etc. whether he or she is living in an affluent suburb, a poor country, or under a suffocating regime. It’s this tension between the joys and desires of childhood, Marjane’s adolescent explorations, and the uncommon limits that she encounters that makes Persepolis such a meaningful book.
In fact, you could say that the narrative is about urges—whether it’s to dance, wear a Michael Jackson pin, have a party, not to mention an opinion—and their consequences. Marjane has to deal with the father figure of Iranian culture, which hews to a stark and draconian archetype: child wants, society (parent) denies. Even the style of the drawings reflects this sharp dichotomy. The world is strictly black and white, without any of the vivid or gaudy colors that most comic books use to paint the world.
It’s not a fun way to grow up, but Marjane’s feistiness and playfulness is such a force that the totalitarian regime sometimes doesn’t seem quite so totalitarian. This can at times be a weakness of the book. For instance, despite Marjane’s rebellious acts, she usually gets off without much more than a slap on the wrist, and one wonders how much her parents’ position and affluence protects her.
They’re portrayed as outspoken critics themselves, and other family members have fallen victim to the regime, but the main group of protagonists remains safe and prosperous for the most part, so the deadly threat of the regime and the war can seem removed at times. I wonder if the form of comic book minimizes the gravity of some of the horrendous events, if only because we’ve been conditioned to read comics for humor or action adventure, not for pathos.
That said, there are startling and horrific scenes (it’s not all fun, of course). One of the most disturbing was one that occurred in what should have been a quotidian affair: a cocktail party. When the culture police bust the party, everyone flees, some running across the tops of buildings, and one person falls to his death after trying to jump to another high-rise—a move that’s ironically so often successful in comic books.
It’s in these moments where the memoir particularly shines because Satrapi so viscerally illustrates the choices that any American takes for granted. Marjane’s parents smuggle Iron Maiden posters across the border for her. Marjane wears a jean jacket and make-up. She goes out in public with her boyfriend. All of these actions that we wouldn’t think twice about are severely punishable in this society, so even the faintest self-expression can carry grave risks.
A reader has to ask, “Is the Iron Maiden poster really worth the flogging and jail time?” It’s impossible for us to answer. You have to live in such a place to weigh the risks and needs of expression.
It all takes a toll, though. We watch as Satrapi moves from blissful, middle-class ignorance, to righteous indignation, to an adult ambivalence—the fun ends, at least for a while, especially as we see Marjane essentially lose a home for her identity after returning from Austria.
If this had been a conventional text memoir, then I’m sure there would be many temptations for the adult’s all-knowing point of view to intrude often, to explain things—simply because that ‘s what adults are prone to do. Seeing this world through the eyes of a child, however, puts the repressive Iranian society in a more startling relief than an adult’s point of view could have ever accomplished.
In this age of memoir, this is the kind of memoir I want to read: one that takes a period of history that I know only a smidgeon about and illuminates it in a surprising way through a unique perspective. In fact, since I’m nearly the same age as Satrapi, I experienced the events only through images on TV and with the surface understanding of a child who cared more about playing or reading than delving into Mideast politics—just like her.