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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

For all book lovers the reading list is always substantially longer, and ever-growing, most books on such lists remain unread, and some books eventually falling off over the passage of time. Umberto Eco is famous for his comment that unread books are more important than the ones that have been read.  

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has beautifully analyzed Eco’s love for his humongous collection of unread books in Black Swan: The Impact of Highly Improbable. Read about it in Maria Popova’s extraordinary blog Brian Pickings here.

There are many books on my list that I haven’t read, and many that have been dropped.

Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis is one of the books that had been on my reading list for the last decade and more.

Recently, I was at the Chapters at Yorkdale with my son Che looking for a graphic novel when I chanced upon the masterpiece. But let me not omit the story of what happened before I bought the book. It’s symptomatic of the times we live in.

A book advisor at the shop seemed deeply suspicious of us (two brown-skinned men, one old and one young) browsing through the books in the shop. After hovering around, he came to ask us if we needed any help. Our visit to the shop was soon after the massacre of gay men by an Afghani-American fanatic in Orlando.

Just to make him a bit less jumpy, I asked him whether the latest Rushdie novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was available in paperback.  He looked at me with greater suspicion but checked on the computer in the shop, and after drawing a blank said it’d be out soon.

Then I asked him whether the shop had any novel by MG Vassanji. The shop didn’t have one the last time I was there last year. But this time around, the book advisor managed to find a paperback edition of the Magic of Saida; as I had the book in hardcover, I told him I’d be looking around for something else.

And then in the graphic novels section, I found the Persepolis.

Satrapi’s memoirs were originally published in two parts in French, and the English translation by Pantheon edition was published soon thereafter. A few years later, a film was also made, which won more than 50 awards globally.

In most cases when you hear high praise for a book before reading it, it almost always doesn’t live up to expectations. In this case, however, it is not so. 

Persepolis is a masterpiece.

Satrapi’s memoirs are of her childhood, adolescence and youth in Iran, Vienna, and back in Iran. Originally published in two parts, this edition combines both the books. It is stark and simple, yet evocative. It is innocent, intelligent and innovative. It is deeply humane and avowedly political.

The main attraction of the book is the period which it describes – Iran's transition from west-backed 'liberal' monarchy to Islamic theocracy. In retrospect, the Iranian uprising against Shah’s monarchy is the probably the first revolt against western neo-colonialism and the exploitative political economy of oil. The uprising was different from the Ba’ath socialism that swept the Arab world more than two decades earlier. It is unfortunate that the Ayatollahs hijacked the Iranian revolution, and turned a popular people’s uprising into a verdict in favour of hardboiled Islamic (Shiite) theocracy.  

The Persepolis describes this transition of the society that was open and a fun place to one that is restrictive and impossible to live. Marji’s parents decide she must leave Iran and study in Vienna. However, escape to Europe doesn’t really change anything for Marji, except that she is made acutely aware of her non-European origins. Her stay gradually turns into a nightmare and she is forced to return to Iran after a few years. But by then Iran is a closed society and a police state, where religion determines everything.

And yet, life goes on, and what isn’t possible openly continues surreptitiously behind closed doors. Marji falls in love, studies art with the man she loves, marries him, thinks it’s a mistake and so separates, and then realizes Iran really isn’t a place for her and leave for France to study some more. In the interim between the Vienna sojourn and leaving for France are the lost years in Tehran where the interminable Iran-Iraq war consumed everything and everyone.

Marjane Satrapi is one of the best contemporary graphic novelists. My introduction to graphic novels is fairly recent (only after I immigrated to Toronto), and almost everything that I’ve read has been borrowed from the magnificent Toronto public library. 

Among the more memorable graphic novels I’ve read in the last few years are Bechdel’s Fun Home (memoir), Mariam Katin’s We were on our own (memoir), Rutu Modon’s Exit Wounds, and Tezuka’s MW. The Persepolis definitely belongs to this company. It’s undoubtedly a benchmark.

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