book-reviews

Persepolis

by Marjane Satrapi

Rating: ★★★★

In reading Persepolis, I did something I've never intentionally done before and I watched the film before reading the book. I rather liked the film, and later the book, but my main discovery about this ordering is that it seems to be the better way to proceed if you ever intend to watch the film -- the omissions and other inferiorities of the screen adaption can't leap out at you, and the comparative levels of detail mean that there's probably going to still be good reason to read the book afterwards. It may still be possible for a poor initial offering in the film to ruin the written story for you, but Persepolis is not such a case.

In either version, Persepolis has the same notable characteristics. First, there is the way it provides insight into the radical social and political changes that have overtaken Iran, and particularly the subordination of women within the reactionary culture that sprung up after the fall of the Shah. Second, there is the playful, personal front which is used as a counterpoint to that rather harrowing background: Marjane's own life takes centre-stage, and you get to both delight in her innocent youth and suffer with her through adolescence -- all the while seeing reference to how what was going on in Iran impacts on her and her generation personally. In short, it humanises the faceless suffering of a distant people.

Marjane's perspective is unique -- you see from the start that her family are unusually privileged, and in fact she is descended from a previous royal line. Her father is a businessman of some significant means, and the family move in intelligentsia circles in the upper classes, where families are capable of paying substantial bribes to get their children out of trouble with the moral authorities. Marjane is raised with the usual upper class training in speaking her mind and looking down on supposed authority figures, and together this results in a strong-willed woman growing up in a culture trying to prevent exactly that -- a clash which sees Marjane sent to Austria for her later years, so that she could be safe. Yet I wonder about the perspective we're missing here, the Marjanes of humbler origins who were forced to conform, or else executed when they would not. To dismiss our author's own suffering would be highly unfair, and her position is the reason we get this insight, but I do wonder if something is being forgotten.

A conversational, personal piece of graphic novel, Persepolis outlines the life of a girl becoming a women in a country becoming a religious police-state. It does so with the sort of humour and insight that can only come from a true-life story, and is clear enough that almost any audience should be able to get some benefit from it.