Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon, 2003)

The graphic novel is a unique and vibrant way to tell a story. Both visual and verbal, it combines sensory input to tell stories, making them more tactile and rich. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a beautiful little volume, newly translated from the French, that comes in a red dust jacket. Staring from the cut-out on the dust jacket is a young Iranian girl, wearing a black veil, arms crossed in resignation, not smiling, with what could be a tear forming in her eye.

Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969, in Rasht, Iran. She grew up in Tehran, studied at the Lycee Francais, and then left for Vienna, and Strasbourg where she studied illustration. She now lives in Paris, but her childhood in Iran has obviously left a powerful imprint on her and Persepolis goes a long way in dealing with the demons that haunt her.

Like Art Spiegelman's Maus books, Persepolis tells of actual events, in comic book form. Unlike Maus which turned Nazis into cats, the Poles into pigs and the Jews into mice, Satrapi's characters are human. Satrapi traces the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran in the seventies. She covers the fall of the Shah and the revolution in mores which followed. But Persepolis is not a dry political treatise: it is the autobiography of a pre-teenage girl growing up in a milieu where her world is crumbling in front of her.

Marjane's parents are successful, forward-thinking people. They live in the twentieth century, they have televisions and fine cars, they read politics and literature, they listen to American music. Their daughter is a regular little kid. She plays with her friends, she talks intimately with her grandmother, she thinks about big subjects, she even talks to God. As she grows up, she listens to Kim Wilde and wears Michael Jackson buttons on her denim jacket. Imagine how that goes over with the fundamentalist Muslims at school! (She tells them the button is really Malcolm X!)

The drawings are charming, simple black and white illustrations. But the images they reflect are extreme. From homey, 'round the dinner table chats to political demonstrations, from torture in Iranian prisons to the gentle touch of a loving parent, Satrapi captures it all. The slow disintegration of a way of life, which is replaced by suspicion, violence and the environment of a police state, is seen through "Marji's" innocent eyes. The straightforward language which tells the story in Marjane's own words is both moving and forthright.

Uncles and the parents of friends are arrested, even killed. Her mother is accosted and threatened with rape and death. The freedoms that we take for granted are all suspended. On one occasion Marji's parents go to Turkey for a vacation, and have to smuggle an Iron Maiden poster into Iran, sewn into the lining of her father's overcoat.

There are many real, touching, terrifying moments like these. The war with Iraq. The uncertainty of the future. Memories of the past. (All of which make this is a good time to read Persepolis.) Satrapi puts a human face on the people of Iran. She shows that growing up is hard to do in any culture. She shows that good and bad people exist; she exposes the dangers of fear and loathing, and bad leaders, and followers like sheep, and of believing everything the media tell you. She makes it a universal story because, after all, it is the story of a childhood.

Marjane Satrapi is working on a sequel, and I can't wait.

Donna Bird has reviewed the collected The Complete Persepolis over here.

[David Kidney]