The Complete Persepolis
341 pages (paperback)
Before reading this book, I’d never read a graphic novel. I’m not snobby about them; I just never really had a particular hankering to read one. So, I was excited when my book club chose to read The Complete Persepolis for its March selection.
To call this a graphic novel, however, is not entirely accurate. “Graphic memoir” would be a more apt description . . . but, because “graphic memoir” sounds like a violent or sexual or otherwise obscene autobiographical tale, this book has adopted a more benign descriptor: “a memoir in comic strips.”
To get a feel for the art and style of the book, take a gander at the trailer for the movie adaptation (which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007), which author Marjane Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed:
The book follows Satrapi from her youth in Iran to her move to France as an adult, decades later. In between:
- The Islamic Revolution of 1979 takes place;
- The Shah is overthrown;
- Satrapi’s uncle (along with thousands of others) is imprisoned and executed for his beliefs;
- Iran and Iraq go to war;
- Her parents send her to Austria by herself in order for her to have a better life and education;
- Satrapi becomes a drug dealer;
- She lives on the streets;
- She attempts suicide;
- She returns to Iran;
- She gets married; and
- She gets divorced.
She also deals with racism, sexism, and religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. Needless to say, this is not Shahs of Sunset. And, although this is a compilation of comic strips, it ain’t Family Circus, either.
Satrapi’s parents were outspoken demonstrators against the Shah. They encouraged Satrapi to be strong-willed and educated. In one of the first stories in the book, Satrapi explains that, as a small child, she “had a big discussion with God” and determined that, when she grew up, she would be a prophet. She “wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.” This is a good introduction to Satrapi, her strength of conviction, and her inflated ego. Some of her actions are so foolishly rebellious and immature that I suspected she may have embellished them for the book. Others display impressive strength, determination, and honesty. It’s hard not to both admire her and wish she’d grow up a bit.
In the introduction (the only two pages in the book not told through comics), Satrapi explains why she wrote the book:
[T]his old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.
Don’t let the comics fool you: this is a book that deals with very heavy issues. And, although the drawings make some of it easier to digest, it still knocks you in the gut.
Because I have no frame of reference, I have no idea where this book falls on the spectrum of good versus bad graphic novels. I can only judge it on its merit as a book in general. And, overall, I enjoyed it.
The book can be broken into two types of stories (and, in fact, in its original printings in the United States, it was divided into two separate books): 1) stories related to Satrapi/Satrapi’s family and their life and struggles in Iran during some extremely rough times, and 2) stories about Satrapi personally (like her experiences in Austria or her marriage). The former are far, far more interesting. I learned a lot about Iranian recent history, and Satrapi’s perspectives on and and experiences during those events are poignant.
In contrast, the stories about her personal life fall flat in comparison. As alluded to above, Satrapi is not a particularly sympathetic character, so it is hard to empathize with her during her personal struggles. And, as compared to life in Iran, her experiences in Austria are boring and mundane. The average struggles of a teenager, even if she is far from home, just aren’t that interesting.
As for the comic-book/graphic-novel style, it both helped and hindered the storytelling. The recounting of some of the history and events felt perfunctory and hurried in parts. In many instances, additional detail would have made stories much more meaningful and impactful. But, because detail was lacking, some of the stories (even ones that should have packed a punch) came off as a little too surface. But, in other parts, the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” rings true. Like this one:
Who should read it: Sohair (i.e., people who have family members who lived through the events described in the book); people who, like me, know little about the history of Iran (I, for one, didn’t even know what Persepolis was prior to reading the book. If you don’t, either, here is the UNESCO link, which has some great info) and are interested in an easily digested primer.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (the first book on Buzzfeed’s list of 15 YA Novels To Watch Out For This Spring)
- And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (the most recent novel by the author of A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner; an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2013; Paris Review‘s Best of the Best for 2013)