Today I would like to tell you about my favourite graphic novel of all times: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Initially published in two volumes, in 2000 and 2001, by the French publishing house L’Association (excellent publishing house specializing in graphic novels by the way), this graphic novel has been adapted in cinema and is now a major motion picture. So there are big chances that you have already seen the movie, if you have not read the book.
This graphic novel made me rise from laughter to tears on numerous occasions and profoundly moved me. Therefore, Persepolis is what I would call a good book, and I would recommend to read it to everyone, whereas you usually read graphic novels or not. Indeed, this book is really easily accessible thanks to its simple but gripping story and the uncluttered – almost childish – style of Marjane Satrapi’s drawings.
This is an autobiographical graphic novel (yes, another one!) recounting the childhood of the auhor in Iran, as well as her teenage years in Austria and the first years of her life as a young adult. Marjane Satrapi was born and grew up in Iran. In 1979, when she was 9 years old, the Islamic Revolution took place. And, despite the hopes of the people who thought that by overthrowing the then monarch (Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) they would give way to a democratic and fair regime, the new Islamic regime that set itself up in the 1980’s was the opposite: authoritarian, misogynist and barbaric.
The first part of the graphic novel thus recounts the “cultural revolution” that took place under this repressive regime, from the obligation to wear the veil for every schoolgirl and female person in general to the closure of every bilingual school and even the universities for two years. It also recounts, from Marjane’s point of view as a little girl, what living in the Isliamic Republic is like: seeing all your friends flee the country with their families, hearing that your neighbours or your parents’ friends have been arrested in the best case, murdered in the worst case etc. The author tells us about her childhood years in the new Islamic Republic of Iran through a succession of little episodes, some more significant than others, that marked these years. During Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in Iran, there is also the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988… As these episodes go along, we follow Marjane as she turns into a teenager and struggles to affirm herself and her personal tastes under a regime forbidding all “symbols of decadence” (that is to say every product coming from the West, from Nike Shoes to Michael Jackson’s badges or posters).
In 1984, Marjane Satrapi is 14. She is a rebel, fighting in her own way against the Islamic unfair rules. Her parents decide to send send her to Austria, to keep her safe from the war and allow her to become the free and educated woman she is meant to become. There, she studies in a French school but struggles to find her place in a foreign country whose language she doesn’t really master and where she is first seen as “the foreigner”. I don’t want to give too much away but let’s just say that in Austria Marjane looks incongruous and amazes. She finds friends, she finds love but she still feels alone and tries to escape this feeling of loneliness by any means. I think that this graphic novel describes very beautifully and strongly this feeling of being a stateless person, of being the “foreigner” in any country you are, and even in your home country after having spent so many years in another country and taking ownership of another culture.
After spending 4 years in Vienna and having been through unbelievable adventures, Marjane goes back to Iran. There, she finds her family again and learns to readapt to life under the Islamic repressive laws as she tries to reconnect with her old friends. She starts her studies and life goes on, until a sad event drives her to another departure.
As I wrote at the beginning of the review, this book can be incredibly sad as it deals with strong and sensitive topics such as dictatorship, alienation of all kind, death and so on. But, on the other hand, all these subjects are never described in a pathetic way. On the contrary, some events are described very lightly and sometimes with a lot of humour, and Marjane Satrapi doesn’t describe Irianian people as submissive and mere victim of the repressive Islamic government. She mostly chooses to focus on the daily courage of Iranian people, who always find a way to be happy and live their lives despite everything. And this is also thanks to this generous and optimistic focus that Persepolis is a highly entertaining and enjoyable book.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Published by Vintage, 2008.