Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

I haven’t yet seen the film based on this graphic novel, a memoir of growing up in Iran during the turbulent 1980s. The book opens a year after the Islamic Revolution, with the ten-year-old and her classmates being told they must wear a veil at school. It is hard to write about political situations without becoming mired in outraged diatribes, yet Satrapi succeeds brilliantly. What is so effective here is that she stays in the child’s viewpoint. Hence, we see the girls using the required veils as monster masks or tying them together to make a jump rope.

Satrapi maintains that viewpoint as the child becomes a teenager and the family’s freedom gradually becomes more restricted. I was particularly curious about how her adolescent rebellion would play out in the context of the larger cultural revolution, and I was not disappointed. Swinging between patriotic fervor during the war with Iraq and horror at the gold keys “to heaven” given to young boys, the young woman’s reactions to her world struck me as deeply felt and emotionally honest. Satrapi’s art, although crude, does an okay job of conveying the emotional content. Some of the most effective panels are the occasional abstract ones.

The question I’m left with at the end of the day, though, is: does it work? And I have to answer: sort of. Parts of it are quite moving and others give a sense of the mingled ordinariness of daily life and shock of terrible events. Yet, for me, the inherent superficiality of the graphic novel format prevented me from full emotional participation in the story.

Don’t get me wrong—I like graphic novels, and I think it an especially appropriate format for this story from a child’s point of view. However, now I would like to read a story of women in post-revolution Iran that fully engages me with descriptions of place and nuanced characters. I didn’t get that from the oddly popular Reading Lolita in Tehran either. Despite its bizarre best-seller status, I found that book lacking in content. I’d hoped to learn more about the young women, and felt betrayed by finding out that the author had used composite characters. Only the mini-lectures about the books were interesting.

I recommend Persepolis as an excellent start at conveying the reality of life in post-Revolution Iran. If it left me hungry for more, that’s not such a bad thing.

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