The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Before I begin my review, I have to thank the wonderful Rommel of travel blog The Sophomore Slump for recommending this graphic novel to me!

Persopolis

Marjane was born in Iran in 1970, just nine years before the social, economic, and cultural revolution that would shake the Persian nation to its very core. For those (like myself) who are unfamiliar with the details of Iran’s history, Satrapi includes a brief 1.5-page introduction. She explains how, for millennia, the Iranian plateau was fought over, invaded, conquered, ruled over, and invaded again–but Persian culture persisted nonetheless. In 1925, Reza Shah–also known as the “father of the Shah”–introduced a series of reforms to modernize the country; oil was also discovered during his rule. In 1941, during World War II, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate the throne, and his son–simply known as “the Shah”–took his place. A decade later the Iranian oil industry was nationalized; an embargo from Great Britain soon followed, which in turn was followed by a CIA-orchestrated coup to overthrow the Iranian prime minister. The situation grew increasingly tumultuous until, in 1979, the country was overtaken by the Islamic Revolution.

In other words, before Marjane’s story even begins, she demonstrates how the region into which she was born was torn to pieces by pressures both internal and external.

Marjane–or “Marji” as she is often referred to in the book–is 10 years old when Persepolis begins. Like many of her classmates, she resents being forced to wear a veil at school.

Persepolis p. 3

Roughly the first half of the book is told from Marjane’s perspective as a child/adolescent growing up in revolutionary, and later fundamentalist, Iran. Marjane’s memory is remarkable–she is able to recall not just the events of her childhood, but also the emotions associated with those events. It makes for a thorough, yet relatable and easy-to-understand introduction to modern Iranian history. Adult wisdom and a sense of retrospection infuse the narrative, but Marjane’s childlike reactions are preserved, such that you almost feel as though you are experiencing the events for the first time along with Marji. (Which, if you don’t know much about Iran, you kind of are).

As you might have guessed, this graphic novel written by an Iranian expatriate living in Paris is filled with subversion and humor. Marjane was probably outspoken the moment she entered the world. Best of all, her parents are modernists in every sense of the word–they believe in gender equality, human dignity, and education most of all, and they are deeply ashamed when the Islamic fundamentalists seize control of the government in 1979.

Persepolis, p. 74

Marjane is just as skeptical as her parents, and her outspokenness eventually gets her expelled from school. The events leading to her expulsion are tame compared to some of Marji’s other antics, however.

She wears all of the banned clothes – symbols of “Western decadence”…

Persepolis p. 131

…and isn’t afraid to contradict her teachers.

Persepolis p. 144

And then comes my least favorite part of the novel. Iran is deep in the throes of the Iran-Iraq war, bombs rain down on Tehran daily, Marjane has been expelled from school, and has nearly been arrested on several occasions. Her parents ship her off to Vienna to continue her education. At 14, alone and essentially orphaned in a foreign country, Marjane’s feisty side temporarily retreats. Marjane never manages to fit in completely, and this portion of the book was quite difficult to read–I’m pretty sure that these were the unhappiest four years of Satrapi’s life.

She reads a lot, smokes a lot, grows a lot taller, and leads a largely transient lifestyle, moving from one dwelling and set of friends to another. Her confidence shattered, she falls into a dysfunctional relationship that, upon its explosive ending, leaves her depressed and wandering the streets of Vienna for two months in the middle of winter. She somehow scrapes through after a stint in the hospital, returns to Tehran, and begins to slowly put her life back together.

I was almost 3/4 of the way through the novel before I realized what it actually was: a memoir. Usually, I’m not a huge fan of the genre as I feel that most memoirs are emotional and not particularly well told (and typically more interesting to the person writing about his or her life than to anyone else). Persepolis does not feel that way. Essentially a work of non-fiction, as you read Persepolis you’ll fall in love with Marjane as a little girl, ache for her as a lonely teenager unable to return home, and celebrate her restoration as an educated feminist in Tehran. At the same time, you will also mourn for Iran–for the Persian empire that once was, and the war-torn, shattered country that it is today. As Marjane’s mother says, “Our revolution set us back fifty years. It will take generations for all this to evolve” (page 339).

From the very first page, Marjane Satrapi draws you in with her approachable, earnest illustrations and frank dialogue. She doesn’t gloss over the dark periods in her life, and Persopolis is the richer for it. The one drawback of the novel is that Marjane and her parents are well-educated and middle-class, and, as such, their experiences and perceptions of the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Islamic Republic of Iran aren’t necessarily shared by many, if not most, Iranians. As Satrapi’s uncle points out, it’s difficult to carry out a leftist revolution in a country where half of the population is illiterate (page 62). Later, Satrapi’s father remarks that by the late 1980s, some 70% of Iranians live below the poverty line.

After reading Persepolis, two things strike me as especially odd: First, how on earth did religious fundamentalists manage to gain control over a nation that was glorified for its intellectual and artistic achievements? Although Marjane is certainly a modernist, her mother is perhaps even more so–and her grandmother is probably the most radical of all three generations! Second, is it not ironic that in the post-9/11 United States, many of those who were so eager to condemn the Middle East as nothing more than a haven for terrorists hailed from the far-right corners of the Republican party? Many Republicans, as you doubtless know very well, are also very conservative when it comes to religion. It seems that the most like-minded groups in the United States and the Middle East–at least from a traditional, religious perspective–ended up being the ones most eager to wage war with one another.

Persepolis is at once the inspiring, yet occasionally heartbreaking, story of one Iranian girl who maintained her dignity and independence in spite of her circumstances. But it’s also harrowing. Many of the passages could have been lifted from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was intended to be a disturbing warning about what could happen to the United States if a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist government took power. First published in 1985–a mere 6 years after the Iranian revolution–I have to wonder if The Handmaid’s Tale was, in part, a response to the events in Iran. Throw Ronald Reagan and the New Right into the mix and the similarities become very disturbing indeed.

I wish I had read this graphic novel in high school. It would have greatly expanded my knowledge of Iran in a much more humanistic way than any dry, informative history textbook ever could have. I might have also saved myself the embarrassment of believing, for a short period of time, that all women who wear veils are oppressed. Though Marjane makes it clear that she resents having to wear the veil, her transgressive attitude toward the theocratic government makes it exceptionally clear that beneath the hood was a liberated woman. It’s an important reminder of something I sometimes forget: that women (and men, for that matter), regardless of how freely they might be dressed, can still be trapped by anti-feminist ideas. And of course, if that’s true, then so is the opposite.

In short, Persepolis is a work of creativity, brutal honesty, shifting perspectives, culture clashes, humor, and unfiltered realism–all set within a period of history that is very often misunderstood. Marjane Satrapi has a singular mind, and by releasing Persepolis, has deigned to share a piece of it with us.

Overall rating: 5/5 stars

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31 thoughts on “The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

  1. I have so much to say really, but what I really want to focus is when she grew up, studied abroad, and kind of got out of hand. I felt like, as I was reading it, it was going off course of the whole story. But then again, just like you said, you have to realize that it is autobiography. Then as it moves along towards the end, it boiled down to individuality, to personality of her own. There’s a lot that went on her early years, but she was revolving with time as well. And no matter how much history this book has, it’s her alluring, entertaining, charming, easy to fall under the her spell character that makes it a great read. A tour de force, indeed!

    1. Yes, like I said, that was a very tough section to read! I mean, I’m glad that she opened up about how difficult it was for her to live abroad, it’s just that it was very sad. I was so happy when she was finally able to return to Iran. She’s very self-aware, too, in the sense that she realized that even if her years in Vienna were mostly unhappy, that they shaped her into the person she would later become. I wish I could meet Satrapi in person!

    1. Thanks, Mikey! Yeah, I’m planning to watch the film very soon. I heard that Marjane Satrapi turned down a lot of offers to turn the graphic novel into a movie. She waited until the right one–where she would have creative control–came along.

    1. Thank you, Anna! Yes, I feel like nothing else like this book exists – I don’t know if I quite got that across in my review. For someone to have lived through that, and then have the ability to reflect on it artistically and with humor… it is a feat indeed 🙂

  2. What a beautifully written and well analyzed review, Alina. I read The Complete Persepolis when it first came out, but reading your review reminded me how much I enjoyed it and learned from it. I must give it another read soon! Excellent observation regarding The Handmaid’s Tale, too. Although I despised that book, I understood the extremes Atwood took to represent her points regarding oppression under a totalitarian theocracy. The Complete Persepolis, in my view, does it better, perhaps because it is autobiographical. (And the pictures don’t hurt either.)

    1. I enjoyed (perhaps “enjoyed” is the wrong word to use) The Handmaid’s Tale, but I do know what you mean. It stems from a place of fear and anger, while Persepolis inspires empathy. Persepolis is also, I think, more appropriate for a younger audience—and in this case, that’s a huge strength. I would save Handmaid’s Tale for a college course, most likely. Thank you for stopping by, reading, and commenting, Ngan, and I hope your weekend is lovely!

  3. I only became aware of “Persepolis” when the film version came out, which is one of my favorite animated movies ever. I’ve since read parts of the books as well. Also liked your parallel to “Handmaid’s Tale” which I think was Atwood’s way of applying what had happened in places like Iran to the political situation in the U.S., taking the “Moral Majority” mindset to its logical conclusion as a cautionary tale (and a very effective one at that).

    1. Yes, “Handmaid’s Tale” is terrifying. It’s right up there with “1984,” in my opinion. Not a replacement for the classic by any means, but an interesting gender-focused “extension” of it in many ways.
      Now it’s time for me to watch “Persepolis” the movie!

  4. I find that generally speaking, we as North Americans, have very little education in the history of other parts of the world. It’s a sad thing. Agri grew up in Europe, and has such a rich knowledge of the history and politics of the rest of the world. I’m ashamed to say that he even knows much more about the history of Korea than I do. 😦

    And a little fun fact: I met Margaret Atwood in my university days, and was actually selected to drive her to Banff and take care of her for 1 night while she was in Toronto for Wordfest. I was so in awe of her, that I was completely speechless the whole time and generally made a total @$$ of myself. I was alone with her in my car for a full 2 hours and didn’t ask her a single question. Talk about wasted opportunity!!!

      1. That’s interesting that you generalize the “lack of history” problem to Canada, too; I would think that it’s much worse in the United States! And then of course we get a revisionist version of our *own* history in school, so who knows if we’re taught much about the rest of the world that is accurate/objective… It’s always a bit of an awkward/shameful situation when a European/Latin American/African/anyone starts talking to you about your own country’s history/politics, and you have no idea what they’re talking about…
        Your Margaret Atwood story is still pretty cool, even if you didn’t talk to her 🙂 I would have been rendered speechless, too. When I met Ishmael Beah at the American Library Association conference, I was completely tongue-tied (and I think I was one of the few people at his presentation who’d actually read his memoir!)
        (P.S. I don’t know anything about Canadian geography, so you could have told me that you drove her from Banff to Toronto and I wouldn’t have known the difference hehe)

    1. Bwahahaha 😆 Shelley, how pitiful. 😀 I’m so sorry to hear this. I lol-ed a lot though. 😀 Nothing at all? No talk about the weather, the traffic, the clothes you, two, wear? 🙂

      1. Lol…it was pitiful, wasn’t it. Yeah, absolutely nothing. I was petrified into silence. I still cringe when I think about how awful it must’ve been for her… but I’m glad you got a good laugh out of the story at least. 😀

  5. I have to get my hands on this now. A very deft review of a complicated book! I am always interested in the plights of women across the world living in totalitarian regimes. I also liked the parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Going on the TBR!

    1. Yay! I think you will really enjoy it. I know I did. Plus, I don’t read that many graphic novels and they make for such a nice change of pace! There’s another book I read when I was in high school, I think, about a girl growing up Kurdish in Iraq that was also very good. I can’t remember the name, but I’m planning to feature it in a post soon. Thanks for commenting 🙂

      1. I’ve read Maus I and two graphic novels by Hannah Berry that were very interesting (one sort of a noir mystery and the other a horror one). I think I have a listing of them on my pages under my List of Books menu if you want to read my reviews. I occasionally look at them at the book store, but I’m not at all interested in the ones they mostly have, the superhero stuff.

        1. Oh thanks for the recommendations, I haven’t heard of any of those! Yeah, definitely with you re: the superhero stuff. In fact, I’ve never read a superhero comic apart from Watchmen – which most consider in a league of its own, and which I didn’t really like.

  6. Thanks for this thorough review! Many moons ago, I taught in an American school in London where I encountered many Iranian students whose families had fled their home country because of the fundamentalist uprisings. Marjane reminds me of them. How interesting to read her story and about Iranian history via a graphic novel. I like that she included humor in her telling, too.

    1. What an experience that must have been! Yes, as I said in my review, Marjane Satrapi was depressed probably the entire time that she was in Vienna—she desperately missed her family, as well as the parts of her culture that had persevered in spite of the fundamentalist uprising. I love the graphic novel format, too—it makes it even more unique. I doubt there’s anything else like this book that covers the same period of time with humor and from an artistic perspective!

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