Thursday, May 31, 2007

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is Satrapi's story of growing up under the Islamic Revolution in Iran, her escape to Vienna in her early teens, her return to Tehran after high school, and her eventual exile to France, where she currently resides. The strength of the book lies in her painstaking attention to detail surrounding the events leading up to the Revolution, and her subsequent commentary on the political and ideological tensions that arose in this environment.

Satrapi accomplishes this through a very smart and crisp black & white illustrative style that captures the harshness of the political climate. She also uses dialogue amongst her extended family members as an effective tool to introduce the reader to Persian history, an essential component of her rich narrative. She does so quite fluidly, since her family represents the very forces the Revolution eventually loathes. Her great-grandfather was the last emperor of Persia, overthrown by the original Shah in the 1950s. Her parents are committed Marxists with a sweeping knowledge of Persian history and world literatures, who continuously view the new Iranian regime with critical eyes. And her grandmother, perhaps the most striking character of all, continuously reminds Satrapi of her duty to her ancestors, one that includes a responsibility towards human justice and dignity.

Persepolis is most compelling because Satrapi refuses to paint an easy picture of the violence in Iran, or of human relationships more generally. She weaves a story that points to the roles conservative forces within Iran and Western influences eager to appease these anti-democratic actors for easy access to oil, played in the build-up to battles that claimed the lives of nearly one million people over a fifteen year period. Through it all, I was left questioning the democratic ideals of the West, since even in the face of a war-ravaged Tehran, a young Marjane prefered to move back amidst the destruction, rather than live in Vienna where her very presence as an outsider evokes disdain and mistrust from even her friends and allies.

It’s difficult to read this story and not be reminded instantly of Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel “Maus.” Satrapi herself has remarked on reviewers’ constant jump to Spiegelman’s work. The only link I’d like to make is in the deep emotions that both stories evoked in me. As I was reading Persepolis earlier today, driving straight through the vast prairie fields, and dipping and diving through the spectacularly green Saskatchewan and Manitoba valleys, I cried. Not so much for those she knew intimately and who were killed, such as her once-exiled uncle who returns from Moscow only to be picked up by the security forces to be executed; her childhood friend and neighbour who dies in an Iraqi bombardment; her elderly uncle who dies of a heart attack after a grenade explodes next to his house. Yes, these stories were sadly disturbing. But what actually moved me to put the book down and stare out at the comforting passing landscape between tears, were the moments when someone dared articulate another way of imagining the world amidst such terror. It wasn’t what I would call hope, a terribly abstract concept that I think is over-used in politically progressive circles, since it comes to mean anything and everything, and I would argue, silences important critiques of social movements.

No, Marjane’s mother, father, grandmother, her many friends, and Marjane herself, refused to accept the vision of the world being expressed and put into practice, despite the overwhelming weight of this form. In this way, hers is not a story about religious fundamentalists and terrorists somewhere else, as it is now so often framed in the West. On the contrary, her complex narrative suggests that we are all connected quite intimately. It’s easy to forget that there was a moment in time when it looked like the Iranian Revolution could possibly serve as a model for progressive movements worldwide. But that moment was quickly replaced by a descent into fundamentalist violence, not unlike what we’ve seen in a number of other international settings.

What Satrapi reminds us is that even in the face of such utter disappoint, and the very real violence that accompanies it, we must still imagine differently. We must never accept fundamentalisms of any kind, whether religious, ideological, political, or social. To do so, imagine different worlds, is a life-long project, as her parents, and especially grandmother, attest to throughout her narrative. And it can take any shape, as long as it involves struggle.