Persepolis: Review of a graphic novel

Persepolis is a raw, candidly told autobiography that humanises a nation stereotyped by the actions of its extremists.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. © L’Association

Persepolis, the ancient capital of the First Persian empire founded by Cyrus the Great,  is what the title of the book refers to. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, tells the tale of a once wealthy and powerful nation, obliterated and laid to waste by decades of war and tyranny.

Satrapi’s novel is divided into two parts, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. The former narrates the childhood of a 10-year old in war-stricken Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, and the latter tells the tale of her return to Iran after the Islamic Revolution when she attends college, marries, divorces and then later defects to France.

In that sense, Satrapi’s graphic novel is more than just a memoir, Persepolis is a Bildungsroman-in-comic-strips that traces the psychological and moral growth of the Iranian-born French graphic novelist from youth to adulthood. And, Satrapi puts the medium to clever use, combining political history with memoir writing to narrate the tale of a nation that is now stereotyped for its fanaticism and terrorism.

© Nikhil Sreekandan

Descended from the last Emperor of Iran, Satrapi was brought up in a middle-class Iranian family by communist parents. When the Islamic revolution swept over Iran and the fundamentalists overthrew the Shah, Satrapi was only 10 years old. The honest and edgy portrayal of the changes sweeping the nation, told from the perspective of a child is enhanced by the bold yet minimalistic drawing style of Satrapi.

I want to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.

In one scene, the 10-year-old Satrapi on learning how her grandpa had been tortured in prison – sometimes put in a cell filled with water for hours at stretch –  stays in her bath for a whole night in an attempt to understand what it would be like to be in a cell filled with water. And, when she gets out, she finds her hands wrinkled up like her grandpa’s. This is what sets Persepolis apart; to be introduced to 20th-century Iranian politics through the impressionable eyes of a ten-year-old is fascinating, to say the least.

In another telling scene, Marji and her friends on learning that their classmate Raman’s father used to be in the Shah’s secret police and has apparently killed a million people, decide to attack Raman with nails between their fingers like American brass knuckles. Satrapi’s mother intervenes in the middle of all the euphoria and teaches her the importance of forgiveness.

© Nikhil Sreekandan

Through an anecdote born from the naive innocence of her childhood, Satrapi shows us how easy it is for violence to breed even more violence and how easily children can be brainwashed with extremist agenda. Persepolis is littered throughout with such poignant scenes, that are treated with lightheartedness and which condenses within it the tragedy of an entire nation.

As the book progresses, Satrapi’s voice transforms, from an innocent child to an emotional teenager and later into a jaded mature adult. On her return to Iran, Marji goes to meet Kia (one of her friends from the brass knuckle incident), who has lost one leg and an arm in the war; Kia is so much past his misfortune that he jokes about the war and the many soldiers who get blown to bits in the name of war.

That day I learned something essential: We can only feel sorry for ourselves when our misfortunes are still supportable… once this limit is crossed, the only way to bear the unbearable is to laugh at it.

Ultimately, what Persepolis does besides breathing life into a country that is considered to be ‘the plague’, is cement the fact that people need to breathe, need to smile, that they need to live, wherever they may be in the world. Satrapi knows this all too well and thus is able to tell the political and social tale of a nation through humour, without ridiculing it in any manner and also without lapsing into any sort of sensationalism or sentimentality.

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