The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis

The Complete Persepolis is the autobiography of a girl growing up in revolutionary Iran, and the first comic book format novel I’d ever read.

Satrapi is from a fairly well off, liberal, secular family in Iran, the kind of folks who wouldn’t be big fans of the Shah nor the Islamic regime that replaced him.

The depiction of Iran during the Shah’s reign, the revolution, the imposition of Islamic law, the bloody war with Iraq, and so on, are as harrowing and at times horrific as one would expect. The fact that it is personalized by being presented from the perspective of an individual and the people in her circle enabled it to reach me emotionally more than if I had read a standard history of the era with casualty statistics and such.

Satrapi is clever throughout, and there is no shortage of humor. The style is the opposite of dry, and as a result it’s easy to stay interested.

I can’t say it always hits the right notes emotionally though. I’m sure this differs from reader to reader, but for me it was hit or miss. For example, the incident of her finding her friend’s bracelet and part of her arm in the rubble during the war with Iraq is quite powerful. On the other hand, when she attempts suicide late in the book I felt strangely little. She didn’t lead up to it in such a way that I could appreciate that her situation, her emotional state, was severe enough to plausibly lead to a suicide attempt. The incident seemed almost disconnected from the narrative.

One of the more admirable things about the book is that the author doesn’t paint herself as being anything better than she is. She doesn’t subtly spin things so you’ll always see her as justified in her decisions, a victim but never a perpetrator, unusually intelligent or virtuous. In most ways she’s no more mature or ethical than you’d expect a kid of her age to be.

(There was some speculation at a book club meeting I attended where this book was discussed that it may be not that she’s admirably humble, but that she’s so morally limited that she didn’t realize how odious some of what she describes herself thinking and doing would make her seem, and so she didn’t realize she’d need to spin it to make her look good. I seriously doubt that.)

I found her especially unlikable during her years in Europe, where she attached herself to a circle of pretentious friends whom I found even less likable.

Actually she sinks even lower in my eyes later. Back in Iran she is confronted by police on the street and is scared they’ll notice she’s wearing make-up (a big no-no to the Islamic fundamentalists). To deflect their attention, she accuses a random passerby of having made advances to her (also of course anathema to the Islamic authorities). The cops haul away the startled fellow for his unconscionable insult to a Muslim sister, to whatever dreadful fate awaits him.

She manifests little if any guilt about it, or even the attitude that “Yeah it was wrong, but I was in a state of total panic and it’s excusable I made the wrong choice out of sheer self-preservation.” Mostly she’s just relieved she escaped the danger, and proud of the cleverness with which she did so.

It’s only when her beloved grandmother loses her temper and tells her—accurately—what a selfish bitch she is that she feels bad about it. But even at that point she doesn’t really get it. She’s crushed, but she’s crushed because she disappointed her grandmother and damaged that relationship, not because she did something awful to an innocent stranger.

In conclusion, The Complete Persepolis is a well-written, engaging book. I’m not sure how much the fact that it’s presented in the form of a comic book made it more enjoyable for me; maybe I’d have liked it about the same if it were a straight text memoir. But in any case, it gets a clear thumbs up.

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