Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Persian automatic

I’d meant to read Persepolis for ages, but the new film version and not being able to think what else to get the Dr for an anniversary present finally got me buying a copy. I didn’t know that much about it till then; it was about Iran and it was meant to be good. Perhaps it would have something to do with the ancient city.

It’s a memoir by Marjane Satrapi, growing up during interesting times as the Shah falls, fundamentalism grips the country and then the long war with Iraq. It’s a keenly observed, often shocking, often very funny comic strip, narrated and drawn in deceptively simple style.

Yes, a comic strip. Just deal with it.

Iran is, obviously, a timely, provocative subject and the book is an insightful, personal view. But it’s more than that, and I think particularly effective because of its being a comic.

Alan Moore has argued that what sets comics apart from other media is the potential for juxtaposition. Satrapi is very good at gleaning the ironies from her mixed-up life. There’s a complex, compelling blend of personal incident and observation alongside a broader political and cultural history.

For example, her nervous Uncle Taher suffers a third heart attack at the sound of a grenade. Marjane and her auntie rush to the hospital and struggle to get past the bureaucracy. Her auntie needs permission to see her husband, and the director who can grant this turns out to be her former, “creepy window washer” – a ne’er-do-well doing fine under the wartime regime, a fundamentalist now who won’t even look at a woman.

And then… Oh, how do I quote from a comic strip? Here goes:
“After the director we went to see the chief of staff, Dr. Fathi.

Dr Fathi: ‘Ma’am, we’ll do what we can. We are terribly strapped at the moment.

‘Look in this room. They’re all victims of chemical weapons.

‘The Germans sell chemical weapons to Iran and Iraq. The wounded are then sent to Germany to be treated. Veritable human guinea pigs.’

Marjane’s auntie, shouting: ‘Why are you telling me this?! I couldn’t care less. I want my husband to get well!’”

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, p. 122.

There’s a constant undercurrent of incredible violence. Deaths and beatings are part of daily life even before the war with Iraq. Marjane’s family are descended from the deposed royals (the surname “Satrapi” is a clue to that) and she goes to see her favourite uncle in prison the night before he is executed.

The frustrated anger at the regime and the constant sense of vulnerability and loss give the book an awful depth. Like Maus, the suffering is juxtaposed and made in any way bearable by funny and wry observance, petty human jealousies and foibles including the author’s own.

She feels awkward in the street one time, so reports an innocent man for making lude suggestions and gets him arrested. Or she and her babysitter conspire to chat up the next door neighbour. Her middle class, leftie parents still stick by social orders that define who can date who. After their next-door neighbours are flattened in an Iraqi raid – Marjane glimpses the mangled something that is left of their daughter, her age – they send her to study in Austria.

It’s again with the contrasts, Marjane a duck out of water who barely speaks the language. The richness and ease of the West sits uncomfortably with what we’ve already seen, and there’s something comic about the punk “rebellion” compared to Marjane’s parents smuggling posters of Kim Wilde. Marjanne stands to lose far more buying illegal pop music tapes in Iran than she does hash for her Austrian friends. The book as a whole is constantly probing, exploring and monkeying around with ideas of freedom and independence – what that means, what we do with it, what our obligations are. (Hence the title of this post, do you see?)

Marjane finds herself in the difficult, lonely state of the migrant: a misfitting foreigner who doesn’t ever quite get accepted by the new country; and changed by her sojourn so that she doesn’t fit at home any more. We see the colossal pressures she’s put under by petty racism and mean-mindedness; a far worse affect than the guilty parties can ever have considered. In fact, what with lying nuns and and a landlady who assumes she’s a whore, Marjane is lucky to survive her time away from home.

She names names as she details her clumsy assignations with boys: one who turned out to be gay; one who was a shit; the husband she should never have married. Yet she’s also often guarded about details in a way she’s not when describing torture and brutality. It surprised me when she admits to jealous sniping friends that, at 19, she’s lost her virginity. When and who with, I thought. And do I really want to flick back to see?

But what’s most extraordinary is how she makes the specific general. These are personal, individual experiences in a world so distant from our own, and yet it’s the tale of ordinary people with ordinary wants and feelings.

I think that easy empathy is helped by Marjane’s drawing style. It’s simplistic – deceptively so when you note the keenly observed cars and buildings – and high contrast, without shading or grey. Things are always either black or white (again a juxtaposition with what’s being shown). Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics argues that this simplification to the abstract makes the people depicted more universal – the less detailed, realistic and specific a drawing of a person, the more it becomes not just any but everyone.

This also makes it easy to print this film tie-in edition on ordinary paperback paper, with its rough pulpy feel and potential for yellowy lignin. (I looked into the feasibility of doing something with Adrian Salmon’s similarly high-contrast illustrations, but a Benny comic proved to be a more expensive proposition than a year of audios and books all together.) You might need to squint to read all the captions, but the format disguises this being a comic; it might be an ordinary, proper sort of book.

Only doing things an ordinary, proper book couldn’t do: showing not telling that we are not different, whatever war, religion and politics might try to claim.


Le Mc said...

I'd really like to read it in French.

Stephen said...

Thank you for that Simon

I heard it discussed on Radio 4 a few months back, I was driving and I did not remember the name correctly. I have now ordered it through the local library.

Anonymous said...

Ah, another one for the list it seems. Top review.
Pip, pip. O