Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Thrift Archives Book Club: 'Persepolis'

Disclaimer: Before I get started with my review, I want to note that this post might contain spoilers. If you are not quite finished reading or you plan on reading this book in the future, you may want to hold off on reading this post until you've finished the book. 

Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, is one of the best coming of age stories I've ever read. Satrapi deftly navigates writing about the experience of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution without her story getting lost in the war around her. Instead, she focuses on telling her own story, allowing her tale to weave into stories about her extended family, stories about her friends and stories about the history of her country. This kind of storytelling makes for a very captivating graphic novel!

Some of my favorite moments in the whole book are when we see little Marjane just being a kid; wanting to play Monopoly with her parents, talking to her friends without any tact or thought of their feelings and trying desperately to understand God and why things happen the way that they do.

But as she grows, so does her understanding of what is happening in her country. We see her mourn the death of her Uncle Anoosh, executed for being a Russian spy. We see her run from her first & last protest and we see her and the her family weather regular bombings. Satrapi loses one of her friends to a bombing, and many of her friends lose their parents to the fight. War becomes a very real, very routine part of Satrapi's life and she's brings us along with her through all of it.

We also see the treatment of the women of Iran through Marjane's eyes. From the beginning of the book, we see Marjane's mother depicted as a very strong, outspoken individual. But as the war worsens, Iran becomes a more and more dangerous place for outspoken women. Her mother is verbally assaulted by a group of men on the street, yet continues to raise her daughter as a strong, independently-minded woman. While in the grocery store, the women are discriminated against by their own people. We learn about the terrible fate of the young Niloufar and we even seen Marjane accosted by a group of older women, the women's branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, for wearing Nike's, a jean jacket with a Michael Jackson button and an improperly-worn veil. I loved seeing an extremely angry Marjane dancing wildly to Kim Wilde's  "We're the Kids in a America". This small act of resistance typifies Marjane's progression from searching child to defiant young woman. 

In terms of book structure, I enjoyed the chapters that Satrapi has divided the book into. While we get the feeling that we're not seeing every moment of Satrapi's young life (She tends to jump around a little), we get a good sense of the whole and the story flows very nicely. The simple panels, drawn as if by a child, help us to get into the frame of mind of young Marjane. We see the world in the way she may have seen it. When we see her visualization of God, he does look a heck of lot like Marx! Similarly, using a simplistic art style, much like in Art Spiegelman's Maus, we are able to take in and process truly horrible images and events without being visually weighed down in the same way as if Satrapi had used hyper-realistic photos. Also, the choice of black and white seems apt as well. While adding to the simplicity of the art, the stark contrast between the black and white images and the fact that this story is anything but black and white is ever apparent & effective. The large panel on page 102, depicting the horrific death's of the boys who were promised keys to Heaven, is one of the most powerful, yet simple panels in the entire book.

The story leads us all the way to Satrapi's departure from her home country to a French school in Austria. The last panel of the book is heartbreaking, but somewhat uplifting if you remember that Satrapi lives to write her own story. In writing this book it seems like she kept her promise to her grandmother: "Always keep your dignity & be true to yourself". I think Satrapi's grandmother would be proud of her grandmother and the inspiration she has become.

If you are interested in what happens after Persepolis, I urge you to check out Persepolis 2. Also read Satrapi's Chicken with Plums, a biography of her great-uncle, the famous Iranian musician Nassar Ali Khan. And, if you haven't already, you can watch the film adaptation of both graphic novels! You know, now that you've read the book! 

What did you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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