Persepolis is a story told in two graphic novels, The Story of a Childhood, and The Story of a Return. It is also the name of an award winning animated film based on these graphic novels. The stories are the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, a woman born in Iran in 1969, and they follow her through the overthrow of the Shah, and give voice to the crushed hopes of the Iranian populace when things go from bad to worse under the fundamentalist rule of the Ayatollah.
Marji’s family is very progressive and open minded, and they encourage her to be a free thinker, to read and understand the events going on around her. They participate in demonstrations against the Shah, and then in demonstrations against the Ayatollah, wanting desperately to bring Persia back to the cultural haven it once was. Watching the news today, of course, you wouldn’t know that modern Iran was once a bastion for intellectuals and free thinkers, for artists and authors and architects. We only see little snippets of life in Iran, and that is of the extreme fundamentalist regime currently in power. The impression is that all of the free-thinkers left Iran during the revolution, to escape the Ayatollah and his rigid and intolerant policies. Reading books like Persepolis, or Reading Lolita in Tehran, one sees the cultural underground that is still very much alive and well in Iran.
But I digress. Back to Persepolis. The first book, The Story of a Childhood, tells of her childhood in Tehran, of the oppression felt by the Iranians under their government, of the relatives and friends who suffered torture and death for their beliefs. If you don’t know much of the history of Tehran, it is a fairly simple account of events, yet it packs an emotional punch. At the end of the story, Marji’s parents decide to send her to Austria, where she will not be punished for her outspoken ways, where her spirit will not be suppressed by the crushing regulations imposed on citizens, most extremely upon women and girls. The last page of the novel is heartbreaking, Marji at the airport, watching in horror as her parents leave, her mother in her father’s arms, because she has fainted in grief and fear for her daughter.
The second novel, The Story of a Return, tells of her time in Austria, as well as her return to Tehran. There, she feels like an outsider, like an immigrant who will never fit in. She finds a group of anarchists to hang out with, maintains her ability to get in trouble, and never stops missing her family and her homeland. After a few months living on the streets, she returns home to Iran, where the crushing oppression of the regime, and her inability to cope with it, send her into a depression. Eventually she overcomes her depression, goes back to school, finds love, and finally, herself. The final page of the novel mirrors the first, with her again leaving her family behind, this time as an adult, leaving for Paris, where she hopes to write and draw for a living.
The stories are so well told, I was engrossed from the first page. Marji is the kind of kid we would all want, though she doesn’t recognize that in herself. Her parents see a curious mind, a keen sense of humor, and an indefatigable spirit. She sees a slacker who spends weeks at a time stoned and checked out of society. Even if they had known of her drug use in Austria, however, I suspect that they would have not thought her any less the perfect child…they would see this as a mistake, and mistakes are how we learn. And learn she does, painful lesson by painful lesson.
It’s hard not to like a kid who knows how to defend herself so well. Though her parents sent her to live with a friend in Austria, that friend promptly left her off at a Catholic school, to be taught by nuns. When left behind at school during the holidays, when all of her schoolmates are free to go home to their families, and she is left behind with the nuns. She comes down to the TV room with a pot of pasta to eat (she was too hungry for one serving, so brought more so she could enjoy it while watching TV), and is reprimanded by one of the Sisters for her ‘gluttony’. The nun says, “It’s true what they say about Iranians, they have no education.” Marji, her blood boiling, retorts, “It’s true what they say about you, too. You were all prostitutes before becoming nuns!” Go, Marji!
I really liked these novels. Give them a try, or, perhaps the movie, which looks to be fairly similar, though the white subtitles on a white background make me wish I spoke French, because they’re hard to read at times.