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Thursday, 10 July 2014

Persepolis.


Persepolis. 


 So. Persepolis.

- The word, incidentally, means 'city of the Persians', it was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, eventually destroyed by Alexander the Great, all of which rather ties in with the story's themes of invasion and destruction. You can still visit the ruins, which are genuinely quite stunning, and an amazing example of Persian architecture in the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE. 

Actual Persepolis.

I heard about Persepolis a few years ago, initially in the context of the film adaptation and then about the comic, and have been meaning to read it ever since, but I admit the art style – black and white, quite simple – put me off. It's not bad, and it fits the viewpoint of the story (that of a child growing up in Tehran) very well, but I have the attention of a six year old who's drank eight cups of coffee at Alton Towers. If I had to attribute the fact that it's not massively well-known to anything, it'd be a combination of the art style and the fact that people can get very uncomfortable with the idea that the UK and US aren't benevolent guardians of peace and enlightenment, which while not a main theme of the story, isn't shied away from either.

(What eventually got me to read it this past week was that myself and a mate have joined a book club, because we're dorks. I didn't read either of the books for the first session we went to (she, being an overachiever who I shall one day destroy, read both), so I spent most of that time nodding and hmm-ing and being so shy that I think at one point people actually started addressing questions for me to my friend, perhaps on the quite understandable basis that I was some manner of humanoid Sooty the Bear who could only communicate through silent whispering motions near another person's ear. So this time I was determined to read at least one, and since I had been meaning to read this comic for a fair while, it was the obvious choice.

The other book was Love in the time of cholera, incidentally. Very good, I hear. Not entirely my cup of tea.) 

This is exactly how their conversation would go.

Persepolis is an autobiographical work, written and drawn by Iranian artist and writer Marjane Satrapi. It depicts Satrapi's life from a small child through to a young teenager, through both the Iranian Revolution, in which the rather short lived Pahlavi dynasty under Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic republic under Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the Iran-Iraq War shortly afterwards.

(For two very interesting periods in history, these are two conflicts that don't really get talked about, despite the fact that the Iranian Revolution was fast. Alarmingly so: In barely over a year, an absolute monarchy that was functionally a thrall of the US and UK was replaced with a vehemently anti-West and isolationist authoritarian theocracy, something made even more surprising by the fact that Iran was a prosperous country. The Iran-Iraq War was less sudden, but was certainly brutal.)

Seriously pretty awful war, there.

Those two events form a large part of the story – they're not just background events, the story is very deliberately and very carefully divided up to show snapshots of the political, economic, and cultural environment of Tehran as it changes over time. I feel it's important to mention that to distinguish it from, say, Angela's Ashes. Angela's Ashes is not about pre-Tiger Ireland. It's about Frank McCourt and his family, and the fact that so much of it dwells on the hunger, the poverty, and the religio-class (that – that is not a word) of that place and time period is a coincidence born of that being the time and place where Frank McCourt grew up.

Persepolis is about Iran. Satrapi makes that explicit in her author's note at the beginning, that she intended to humanise a place so often demonised in fiction and the media. Each 'chapter' of the comic grounds you in a particular event that demonstrates Iran at that time, how it had changed, how it got there, what it's like and where it's going. This comic is a large part history lesson, and it's a fascinating history lesson, wittily delivered, from the viewpoint of someone who lived it.

(The writing and dialogue is, incidentally, excellent. It's sharp, it's concise, it's funny and tragic, it conveys a lot of information in very little words. I can't, alas, give Satrapi 100% of the credit for that, as she wrote it in French and I am reading an English translation, but I can give her a good 99% of it, because if there's anything reading Chekhov has taught me, it's that translation can make a good work bad, but no amount of translation will make dull, turgid writing that drones on and on about boringly boring people boredly doing boring things at length while bored boring people bore around them boringly good.) 

More interesting than Chekhov.  And McCourt,
for that matter.

That isn't to say that the characters aren't relevant. If it's a large part history lesson, it's also a fairly large part character study. The central cast is small, but vivid – Marjane, her father, her mother, her grandmother and, briefly, her uncle. They all feel like real people, especially Marjane, who is abrasive, intelligent, confused about the world around her but desperately hiding it, rebellious, and ambitious. One of the first things we learn about her is that she wants to be a prophet when she grows up. By the time we leave her, her tendency of calling her teachers out on their propaganda and lies has put her in danger, and her family must reluctantly send her away to Vienna for her own safety.

You feel for these characters. They're flawed, imperfect, and sometimes they do cruel things, usually unintentionally, but they're also witty, intelligent, loving, and struggling both to survive and to live in an increasingly restrictive and dangerous world. They have run-ins with the law, and with the Guardians of the Revolution, and are only saved by good luck – and you never know if they will be saved. Sometimes they aren't. Marjane's uncle is imprisoned and executed, with Marjane as the last person to see him. Their neighbours die in a bombing. One of Marjane's friends has her father, a fighter pilot jailed after a coup, be released only to be shot down while flying against Iraq. 

Death is not absent in this story. Nor is pain, nor is fear. The fact that all that death and pain and fear and lack of freedom is punctuated with humour of both the cutting and gentle variety doesn't for a second mitigate it. You are very aware, from a very early stage, that these characters aren't safe, and that possibly the only person guaranteed not to die is Marjane, and that's only because she's writing it, and both writing and artwork are notoriously difficult tasks for the dead, whose fine motor functions are not what they were.

Marjane, prophet-ing.

I admit, it was hard going. Not necessarily because of the subject matter, and not because of the length either: It was partly because of the art style, which I admit, did sometimes fail to sustain my interest. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I am intensely shallow. I have given things more positive reviews before solely because they are colourful and pretty, we know this. But the black and white, simplistic style didn't really do much for me. It was certainly very unique, and I mean that in the best way possible: Nobody will ever look at Marjane Satrapi's artwork and mistake it for somebody else's. It certainly fit the story, as it is in a way quite childlike, and the story is told from the perspective of a child. The black and white created a starkness that wouldn't have been present in colour, I think, and that was very effective.

But I like colour. The things I like are almost exclusively things that are bright, and colourful, and use colour and light and shadow and contrast in interesting ways. I spend surprisingly long amounts of time adjusting the colour of the text on my advertising cards for precisely this reason. So I can't say that the art style is objectively a flaw, because it's not and that would be utterly silly, but it wasn't to my taste.

That said, I did read it in a day, so. Take from that what you will. 

Class.

I'd definitely suggest checking it out, if you haven't. It's critically well-received, but seems to still be something of an underrated gem, so I wouldn't half mind spreading the word about it a bit. There's a film adaptation if reading isn't your thing – in which case I do wonder why you are on this predominantly text review blog, did you get lost on your way to somewhere else and now can't find your way out – and it can be found on Amazon pretty easily.

Also, it has a girl having conversations with God. I mean, seriously, that's worth checking out. 



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