Sunday, November 16, 2003

War through a child’s eyes
M.L. Raina

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood 
by Marjane Satrapi. Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris. Pantheon, New York. Pages 117. $17.95. 

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Two faces of Iran loom over the American consciousness at present. One personifies the ‘axis of evil’ that calls forth the self-righteous anger of the government. The other is that of a vibrant society, prolific in literature and the cinematic arts, an Iran struggling against religious fanaticism, yet mocking Bush’s fulminations. Three women representing this new face are currently drawing praise from the more enlightened sections of the American intellectual life even as the government continues to demonise the country.

They are Samira Makhmalbaf, the 23-year-old filmmaker whose Blackboards is playing to record audiences; Azar Nafisi, the academic, whose Reading Lolita in Tehran is a runaway bestseller and Marjane Satrapi, the author of a captivating memoir written in a booming post-modern literary genre, the comic- strip autobiography. Whereas Nafisi and Satrapi live in exile in America and France, Makhmalbaf, daughter of the veteran director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, continues working in Iran.

Persepolis is a memoir with a difference. For one, it is not written in the form of a narrative. It is a collection of comic-strip drawings, all in sharp contrasting strokes of black on white with captions presenting a continuing story.

As in cartoons generally, these pen-strokes accentuate the humour of the images, particularly if the humor is grim and forbidding, as it is in this memoir. Its grimness derives from the experiences of the narrator, a little girl Marji, through whose eyes the political and religious turmoil of the recent Iranian history is presented. Her restless questioning eyes are drawn in bulging flourishes so as to always keep her in our sight.

Cartoon strips are the most economical and forceful mode of presenting experiences too hurtful for verbal expression. They have the added advantage of reaching across different levels of readership and registering a broad range of responses. Besides, it can state without really explaining. It can reduce or enhance the visual impact by simply altering line and emphasis.

Persepolis is the story of a seven-year-old girl who watches the recent events in Iran from her peculiar child’s eyes. Combining political history and memoir, it portrays a country’s history through the vicissitude of a single family. The sassy little girl tries to pry the truth from the deceptions and allurements of her elders, both at home and school. What emerges at the end when 14-year-old Marji leaves for Vienna is a picture of Iran in turmoil — first under the Shah and later under the shadow of teeth-crunching ayatollahs.

The child Marji declares her first rebellion when she decides to "become a prophet." Born in a progressive household to an engineer father and a feminist mother, Marji blasphemes her way through the early pages, as when she decides to meet god, who looks like Karl Marx, "though Marx’s hair was a bit curlier."

Outraged over the fact that her maid could not sit at the same table as her family, she decides to break social, political and, later, religious taboos. She throws off her chador and earns the wrath of her puritanical teachers. As for the maid, Marji decides to sleep in the same bed with her as a mark of protest. While she is doing all this, she continues to question her parents about the meaning of the political and social unrest, refusing easy explanations and evasive answers.

Meanwhile Uncles Anoosh, Ferreyddon and Taher are implicated in plots to overthrow the Islamic Republic and receive harsh treatment from the regime. Marji hears their stories and gets disillusioned with official lies. The upshot is a school lesson in which she questions her teacher’s figures of the dead in the war with Iraq and is reprimanded, causing further frustration. We see pictures of bombings, arson in the streets of Tehran and are deeply involved with the crisis of Marji’s consciousness. She continues to march in protest meetings with her mother, but soon accepts the reality of her confinement in a religious bind.

The later sections are simultaneously hilarious and chilling. Hilarious, when Marji dupes the guards about her dress and passes off Michael Jackson’s photograph as one of Malcom X (Azar Nafisi’s memoir also conveys the absurdity of women having to lie about their dress and romantic passions). Chilling, as she learns that her childhood friend, the Jewish girl Nadi is killed by bombs falling on her street. The last scene depicts her leaving the country while her mother is carried away by her father in grief over the daughter’s going.

Persepolis is both a history and a family romance interwoven in graphic illustrations of varying line and scale. Combining the techniques of expressionism and Persian miniature paintings, the book shows the strength of exile art at its most creative.