Page 45 Review by Stephen
A magnificently accessible autobiography full of humility, candour and a little self-recrimination, PERSEPOLIS originally appeared in the UK in two separate hardcovers over two consecutive years. As you'll see, each proved my favourite book of both those years. Given its extraordinary depth and impact I am for once going to forgo conflating the two reviews, and simply provide edited versions of its constituent halves.
Just before I hit my teens, a classmate told me his mother and father had just fled Iran. Neither History nor Geography were high on my school's agenda (1½ hours of History, ½ hour of Geography versus 8 hours of Latin and 4 hours of Greek - so yeah, I did know what I was typing for that LONEWOLF & CUB review, but I'm buggered if I know where Luxembourg is). All I knew at that point was that the Shah - I guessed he was some Persian form of king - was about to be deposed and life for westerners, and in particular my friend and his parents, would have become very dangerous there. I knew nothing about the country's previous history, I knew nothing of its current politics and it certainly never occurred to me to think about the indigenous population's plight. A popular revolution must at least be to their benefit, surely?
Marjane was nine years old at the time. After years of living as Marxists under the original Shah's reign, ushered back in by the west after his son nationalised the oil industry, her family also thought the revolution was going to liberate the country. They were wrong.
Comparisons to Spiegelman's MAUS have inevitably gathered swiftly around PERSEPOLIS, nor are they unjustified. The visual style is simple and figurative for maximum empathy with a young Satrapi's perspective, the absence of tone leaves the black to enhance mood or, in the clothing, a muted individuality before the Islamic revolution, and the imposition of stricter conformity afterwards. And, as with MAUS, what might initially seem a bleak or unengaging subject is made compelling by the reader's learning curve being shared by the author. For as precocious as she may be, Marjane here is still a child - exuberant, vulnerable and antagonistic - and the shades of grey, not instinctively seen, need to be shown to her by her parents. Indeed the power of this book comes from the overwhelming sense of family - hers and her friends' - under the crushing pressure of two successively ruthless political states, then a devastating war with Iraq.
That this is autobiography is the key to the book's success, to its accessibility and vitality. Satrapi leads you through a daily reality of public repression, with patrolling groups or troops of both sexes of whom Marjane nearly funs afoul whilst wearing a pair of forbidden trainers (and we're shown the potential consequences), private acts of rebellion (while the borders are still briefly open, her parents journey to Turkey, determined to bring Marjane back a poster of Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden; her mother sews it into her Father's coat lining to get it past the authorities - he looks comically stiff, but they just get away with it!), very real risk (when they are almost caught with alcohol in the house, saved at the last moment by her grandmother's quick thinking) and, unbelievably, moments of pride, love and joy.
This is an education. It is, as Joe Sacco concludes, ultimately "shattering." Really, how could it be otherwise? And it is also an "important" work, but it is neither difficult nor didactic nor dull. It is a testament to this book that I left it full of love and admiration for Satrapi's stoical, passionate and beautiful parents, with a very real sense of all their personalities, and with a desperate thirst to know what happened next. And it was about time I understood exactly why my childhood friend's family left when they did, and what happened to those left behind.
I think I've found my book of the year. And it's only May.
It's book of the year time from the Stephen L. Holland Prematurely Positive Poll, and once again it goes to PERSEPOLIS. Why? It's an autobiography full of vitality, bursting with truth and laced throughout with a wisdom and perspective that can only come through hard-won experience - and not so commonly even then. There's also a life drawing class which is hysterical, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
At the end of the first volume, Marjane Satrapi, aged fifteen, was sent by her parents on a plane to Vienna in order that she might thrive outside the confines of an Iran both at war with Iraq and, following the Islamic Revolution, under the thrall of a fundamentalist regime.
"I couldn't just go. I turned around to see them one last time."
The very last panel showed her mother passing out with grief
"It would have been better to just go."
What happened next? was the question which had been tearing at me ever since the first half came out. The answer was not at all what I was expecting nor, necessarily, was Marjane herself. In fact, one of the most engaging aspects to this book is that Satrapi does not set herself up as a saint. She's judgemental, self-righteous, and a bit of a prig for a while. Until she finally gets a boyfriend in Vienna and...
"Markus was so proud of me. So proud that he told the whole school that his girlfriend had contacts at Cafe Camera. This is how, for love, I began my career as a drug dealer. Hadn't I followed my mother's advice? To give the best of myself? I was no longer a simple junkie, but my school's official dealer."
So no, not a predictable trajectory.
The book opens at her new school in Austria, where Marjane effortlessly - but without self-pity - evokes the loneliness of being separated from the comfort of family and thrown into a boarding environment where the language is alien and friendships have already formed since the trimester has already begun. This, following the rejection of her adoptive family. But there's also a newfound freedom, both personal and commercial, to be enjoyed in the form of supermarkets and through her caricatures she makes two friends who serve her very well: German-speaking Lucia, and French bohemian Julie. The first solves the problem of what to do when everyone disperses for their Christmas holiday (she's invited to Lucia's parents in south-west Austria), the second introduces her to other outsiders including a pompous twat of an anarchist punk called Momo. She's also resourceful herself, sensibly using her downtime to study rather than brood:
"I then turned my attention to Sartre, my comrades' favourite author. "The notion of consciousness comes from man's lived experience" [pronounces her comrade]. I found him a little annoying."
I'm not going to tell you how she ends up on the streets but I will say that before too long she winds up back in Iran (like I said, not a predictable trajectory) where she must come to terms with her profound sense of failure, readjust to having to cover herself up completely, and watch that she doesn't fall foul of the authorities in so many ways. Women are not allowed to be seen with men in public unless they are husband and wife, which causes real difficulty when wanting to spend time with her new fiancé (but if you think being out proves difficult, try being 'out') and - something I didn't know - you even have to take an Ideological Test, a proof of your moral rectitude and religious propriety, in order to enter university. As in the first book, Satrapi successfully persuades you of the clear and present dangers involved in any transgression - including summary execution (see being 'out') - as well as the morally bankrupt hypocrisy of being able to buy your way out of less serious trouble if caught.
"The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: "Are my trousers long enough?" "Is my veil in place?" "Can my make-up be seen?" "Are they going to whip me?" No longer asks herself: "Where is my freedom to thought?" "Where is my freedom of speech?" "My life, is it liveable?" "What's going on in the political prisons?" It's only natural! When we're afraid, we lose all sense of analysis and reflection. Our fear paralyses us."
The book is full of these pithy observations including, in Vienna, her early exploration of identity through haircuts and clothes, and the dishonesty yet draw of teenage conformity within a set group of friends. I could also relate to her shock at being offered a cigarette by her mother, a sign I recognised myself at the time as an early mark of adulthood. In fact I've another three pages of notes down here (which of course I can't read) so you can trust me when I tell you that there's so much more to discover in this book which took me a whole afternoon to enjoy. I haven't even told you how it ends.
As to that life drawing scene, I'll try to get that up on the website as soon as I can, because it's a wonderful absurdity as the class is confronted with a model from whom they can learn absolutely nothing, draped as she is from head to food in thick, black robes.
"We nevertheless learned to draw drapes."
So there we go, my book of the year, a first-hand witness to the hypocrisy of the timid and the terror of the state, but overwhelmingly a testament to the kindness of strangers, the bravery of the individual, and the love of a caring family. And that's more than enough for me.