Persepolis is, as subtitled, the story of author Marjane Satrapi’s childhood. It’s an experience few readers will be familiar with — although certain aspects of youth are universal, she grew up in Iran, the child of protesters with a grandfather who was once the son of the emperor. In only eight years, she experienced the Islamic Revolution, the overthrow of the Shah, and war with Iraq.
Her childish perspective, retold from a vantage point years removed, is fascinating to read. It allows her to be selfish in the face of tragedy, which emphasizes her humanity. She’s interested in her uncle’s stay in prison, where he was tortured, because she wants to brag about it to her friends. Her unusual viewpoint also serves as a filter, permitting terrible events to be told without destroying the reader through sympathy. They become stories instead of memories, even as she loses her dreams and her relatives to fundamentalists.
Satrapi’s style is almost primitive, consisting of flat figures with simple shapes and features. It’s more sophisticated than a child’s creations, but it superficially resembles them, an approach that supports the presentation of memories from that period of life. Even with simplified graphic language, the expressions carry the subject, and the particular panel moments are especially well-chosen.
As a six-year-old, she was convinced she would be a prophet, speaking to God. Then she wanted to be a revolutionary, playing at what was a subject in the news without understanding the slogans she spouted. When her parents explain politics to her, their basic descriptions also assist the reader unfamiliar with the country’s history, but personal events teach more valuably than all her book knowledge. For example, she learns of the class system through the unhappy love story of the family’s maid.
The book starts right into a challenging subject, especially to Western readers: the veil that all women were told they must wear. The ten-year-old Satrapi complains of the rule not out of politics or social concerns, but because it’s too hot and other girls steal them to play with. Her young viewpoint thus nicely avoids falling into the trap of bilateral, all-or-nothing thinking. A girl’s logic isn’t predictable, and the deviation from the expected is entertaining, even sometimes funny. The historical approach is also comforting to the reader. No matter how disturbing the events described or alluded to, we know that Satrapi survived to tell her story. Her memoir is a must-read for a unique perspective on current events.
There is a sequel in which Satrapi returns to Iran after becoming homeless and drug addicted in Europe. Unlike the first book, it’s disjointed, tawdry, and unfocused. The story of her young adulthood doesn’t demonstrate the insight that made the first book so special; perhaps the events are still too close to her memory, or perhaps she’s more ashamed of them, since they’re mostly internally induced instead of imposed from outside.