Back in 2015, when I put together my non-fiction reading list of biographies I owned but had chronically failed to open, ‘Persepolis’ seemed to be top of the list. From blog comments, friends’ recommendations and the wonderful first page, it was the obvious choice to kick off the project. Something of Satrapi’s independent stubbornness must have seeped through the pages though, because January, February and now much of March have sped by and this blog still lacks an adequately detailed rave review of this most lauded of autobiographical graphic novels.*
*A small aside, a brief internet trawl has suggested that ‘Persepolis’ falls into this confusingly titled genre. ‘Graphic autobiography’ sounds wrong and suggests a book containing ‘graphic’ imagery, rather than actual images. On the other hand, ‘Persepolis’ isn’t a novel. If anyone has good suggestions for the best way to categorise Satrapi’s book, please do let me know.
‘Persepolis’ contains ‘The Story of a Childhood’ and ‘The Story of a Return.’ Chapter 1, ‘The Veil‘ starts with a simple panel containing a face on drawing of a sullen young girl (the same image that you see, but in a different frame, on the cover). The caption reads simply, ‘This is me when I was ten years old. This was in 1980.’
We get the heroine and the time period. The place has already been hinted at by the title; Persepolis was an ancient Persian city and its ruins still survive in present day Iran. To Westerners, the exotic and ancient name ‘Persia’ has very different connotations to the word ‘Iran.’ Similarly, the title ‘Persepolis’ will receive a different response to a book with the same cover, but called ‘Tehran.’ This economy and complexity is sustained throughout the whole autogbiography. Just take the cover, where the evocative yellow and black markings form a beautiful border for the unexpectedly modern cartoon in the centre. Satrapi explores the past and the present, culture and power, identity and nationality, showing that any simple explanation must inevitably be subverted when viewed in sufficient detail.
This is my first review of a graphic novel, and I’m not entirely sure of the copyright restrictions when ‘quoting’ pictures, so I’m going to limit myself to saying that the drawings are stunning and using the cover illustration as an example. The girl we see does not seem to belong in the veil that covers her neck and shoulders. For a start, her hair is showing at the front and there is every suggestion of Western clothing underneath. Above all though, it’s her defiantly miserable expression and posture that tell us we’re going to be following the life of a believable, complex girl, whose assumption of a uniform dress code will not affect her personal identity. The mixture of cultures visible, and the inner conflict that this causes, exposes the dangers of assuming that veils hide individuality, or that everyone who wears them will therefore completely share a specific ideology or world view.
If, like me, you’re very ignorant of Iranian history, ‘Persepolis’ will teach you about the 1979 ‘Islamic Revolution’ (the cause of Satrapi’s veil in this opening picture). Unlike the only other ‘autobiographical graphic novel’ that I’ve read, Art Speigelman’s ‘Maus,’ ‘Persepolis’ is told from the perspective of a child, without an explicitly mediating adult voice to reflect on events. Thus, we learn about the political situation along with the young Marjane, acquiring snippets of information and focussing on the individual implications of events rather than their wider theoretical contexts. It’s at once a very powerful and also a very accessible way of learning about a complex, significant period of recent history.
In ‘The Story of a Childhood,’ Satrapi is an outsider by virtue of her age; as a child she is not able to to take full part or really fully understand what is happening around her. In the second half of the memoir, this outsider status is taken further, when she moves to Austria to go to school. Marjane’s journey, navigating the East and the West, her personal and her political adolescence, could be seen as a metaphor for Iran’s recent political history. Of course, it can also be read as a personal memoir, narrating a unique, individual life. Either way, it’s an incredibly moving, intelligent and perceptive book. Everyone who encouraged me to read ‘Persepolis’ was right and I’m now going to join the club and start proselytising in my turn. Highly, highly recommended.