Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return
Marjane Satrapi was ten years old when the ayatollahs overtook Iran. Formerly educated in a French-language school with classrooms integrated by gender, she found her life uprooted and turned sideways. Teachers who, one year, told students the Shah was chosen by God, the next year told students to rip the Shah’s photos from their textbooks. Who can blame her for developing a drifting, nihilistic view of life?
Satrapi’s memoirs, written in graphic novel form, first appeared in French in four volumes at the height of the 1990s “comix” craze; they were later reprinted in English in two volumes. (A one-volume edition exists.) Like most comix artists, Satrapi embraces an auteur mindset, with a single writer-artist, and minimal editorial influence.This permits an introspective, deeply personal approach to her telling her own story.
Perhaps the most important theme in Satrapi’s memoirs is the contrast between her family’s secular, Westernized upbringing, and the increasingly repressive, theocratic regime. Before the Islamic revolution of 1979, Satrapi’s parents participated in anti-Shah marches, believing the eventual revolution would be primarily Marxist in nature. Imagine their shock when the ayatollahs became the revolution’s driving force, and eventual ideological captains. Like many, their sense of betrayal was palpable.
Not that their Western ideals excludes Islam. As a child, Satrapi believes herself a prophet, in a lineage with Zoroaster, Jesus, and Mohammed. She has intimate conversations with God to understand her confusion. Later, as an adult, she quotes the Koran fluently when religious police attempt to squelch her voice. But the Satrapis’ religion doesn’t yoke them to the past. History, for them is a march toward secular democracy.
This battle between secular and theocratic mostly happens behind closed doors. Satrapi’s parents attend parties where everyone drinks homemade wine, wears neckties, and dances to American rock, emblems of Western excess. On those rare occasions where Iran opens its borders, they smuggle in posters and cassettes of Marjane’s favorite American heavy metal artists. But they also hang blackout curtains and bribe cops, because the state encourages snitching on one’s neighbors.
Satrapi’s two-dimensional, black-and-white art, consistent with the comix movement, permits readers to see Iran through her eyes. We can see clashing crowds of protesters and counter-protesters without her having to write long-winded descriptions— and her flat, cartoonish art reveals how screaming ideology strips everyone of individuality. Later, she uses cutaway reveals to expose, say, how women dress beneath the veil, how they express individuality in a state that demands conformity.
It’s possible to read Satrapi’s memoirs as moments in Iranian history; that’s how they’re often marketed. A nation’s struggle to overcome its past requires it to decide what future it wants to embrace. Satrapi’s liberal, educated family embraces the homo economicus model, believing an Islamic version of rational humanism will inevitably overtake the country. They simply don’t anticipate the confidence that religious conservatism promises people who feel dispossessed.
But like the best classic literature, Satrapi’s memoir is fundamentally about its audience. As Marjane first witnesses her parents’ collisions with religious authority, and later embraces such conflicts herself, it’s impossible to avoid noticing that both sides wear ideological blinders. Satrapi uses absolutist thinking to confront absolutist religion. How often, we wonder, do we ignore our own absolutism? What sacred cows do we refuse to sacrifice, and not even notice?
Satrapi sees the world in black-and-white because, essentially, she’s a child. As the story progresses, her art becomes more sophisticated and fully dimensional, because she herself becomes a more sophisticated soul. She loves her people, and when her parents ship her to Europe as a child for safety, she returns as an adult. But eventually, even that collapses under state pressure. To remain human and sane, she has to leave.
In some ways, Satrapi retains her childhood aspirations to prophethood, Like Jesus said, a prophet lacks honor in his homeland. By exposing us to the corrupting influences of absolutism, Satrapi encourages us to understand the complexity of fellow humans. We cannot manage change without loving one another; and we cannot love without knowing one another. But Satrapi’s prophecy rejects dogmatism. Truth is messy, because it’s finally made of human beings.