My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of a childhood spent—in a well-off and left-liberal family—amid the upheavals of the Iranian Revolution has become a contemporary classic. What are the sources of its success?
Persepolis has a very literary structure, for one: it takes the form of a series of vignettes, in the manner of contemporary epiphanic short fiction, with each chapter named for a central symbol. This is a painless way to introduce students to narrative that does not rely heavily on Freytag’s Pyramid-style dramatic plot structures.
For visual storytelling, Satrapi works with a fairly regular grid. The art is black and white with heavy lines and many solid areas of black or white; the effect is to create almost static images where contour is far more important than detail. While it makes the book extremely easy to read, especially for those unfamiliar with comics, it is a strange artistic choice, in that Satrapi at the thematic level seems to demand richness, complexity, ambiguity—qualities that her chosen artistic style do not capture well. She does punctuate her narrative with large and almost metaphorical images that are more textured or patterned. Perhaps the idea is that in a totalitarian society, the full ambiguous pleasures of the aesthetic can come only in short bursts. At both literary and artistic levels, I see much commendable craft in Persepolis.
Despite Persepolis’s simplicity of style, a few moments inspire complex moral and political reflection: when Satrapi compares her mother to the fundamentalist torturers, locating the source of all abusive authority in the family; when Marjane and her father celebrate Iran’s bombing of Iraq, demonstrating the ubiquity of nationalism, even among those you wouldn’t suspect of being anything less than peaceful cosmopolitans; or when young Marjane talks to the individual God of her imagination, showing the book’s preferred mode of relating to the divine as a private and poetic affair, as against Islamic fundamentalism.
A cynical reader would attribute the success of Persepolis to its flattering of the intended audience, as it affirms, despite a few misgivings, that middle-class left-liberalism is, the world over, the way to be; our imagined cynical reader would also note its fairly “easy” emotional structure, which juxtaposes childhood innocence and even cuteness with the brutality of political conflict. I am not quite so cynical—and anyway, revealed preference if nothing else indicates that I do think middle-class left-liberalism is the way to be—but I still don’t detect as much depth as I would like in this famous graphic novel. All in all, I would recommend it to young readers, ages 12-14.