Persepolis is a fine and accomplished piece of work, formally outshining the far more ostentatious Habibi. While its drawings are flat, even austere, this attention to simplicity and geometry, in the words of Hillary Chute, “present events with a pointed degree of abstraction in order to call attention to the horror of history.”¹ While Craig Thompson’s vast, mystical, interlocking flora and spiraling shapes created an almost overwhelming spectacle of affect and Orientalist excess, Persepolis recounts its traumatic narrative at a critical remove.
Of course, that separation can only be carried so far in a work of autobiography. However, because it intertwines the general history of Iran with the particular history of Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, it ends up contaminating both forms. As a history of modern Iran it is intensely personal, and its autobiographical narrative is swept up in grander historical events. Abstraction literally flattens the image (bringing it closer to pure symbol or text) and simultaneously draws the larger and smaller stories closer together. This is because Satrapi’s life as recounted here is inevitably structured by politics, its wildness and trauma often forcibly configured into symmetry. Her images depicting post-revolutionary Iran show how singular personalities are collapsed into sameness by conformity of dress, facial hair, and thought. All the while, however, those individuals are not effaced by this outward conformity, their personalities becoming all the more conspicuous for it.
In the second of two volumes, Satrapi spends several heady years attending a French school in Vienna, rushing between love interests, residences, and political groups. Despite the decadent abundance of food and consumer goods in Austria, the people there seem no happier, especially one nihilistic punk that Satrapi takes great pleasure in tearing down. Nuns come in for another pointed critique, with their depiction drawing inevitable comparisons between two authoritarian religious featuring women in head coverings. So much changes between Iran and Austria, but much stays the same. One definite pleasure of the book comes from recognizing my own Western (tiger) pretensions and just how easy the path of cynicism is compared to trying to enact real social change.
Imperialism comes to the fore early in the narrative when the author surveys Iranian history in the twentieth century. British intervention is seen as a corrupting influence, shaping Iran into a dictatorship first under Reza Shah and subsequently under his son Mohammed Reza Shah. While the overt domination of the British and Russians is condemned, Satrapi is a child of a Westernized, secular family that enjoys the bounties of Western goods and the pleasures of Western culture. She visits black markets to buy Iron Maiden tapes, dons a Michael Jackson pin on a jacket that says “Punk Is Not Ded” over her more traditional garb, and commits to Marxist revolution under the influence of her kindly Uncle Anoush. Satrapi, who composed this book in French and achieved her greatest success in Europe and the United States, is, though not simply a citizen of a Western metropole, certainly far more Westernized than most Iranians. According to Said’s principles of contrapuntal reading, Persepolis constitutes a response by the dominated territories to the legacy of imperialism. This much is certain, since the work is reckoning not only with the historical fallout of British dominion over Iran and the CIA coup but also the fact of Western manipulation of the Iran-Iraq War and the revolt of many people in the country against the imposition of Western culture and alien values under the shah’s repression.
From another angle, however, this book can be seen as deeply implicated in the structures of Western culture and capitalism. Like Zahra’s Paradise, this is a work written for and marketed to a Western audience written by an expatriate. Its more rigorous drawings and attention to both personal and global histories make it more formidable as an opponent of imperialism, but it remains the product of Western presses and the padder of Western bank accounts. Additionally, its reception in the West has some troubling aspects to it as well as nobler ones. For instance, the dominant representation of Iran in the American media is one of an implacable enemy to American interests and culture. Tensions between Iran and the global American empire almost led to war before they were somewhat defused by recent negotiations and the election of a less populist and reactionary Iranian president.
Persepolis tells the story of a secular, wealthy Iranian woman who eventually left to live in Europe, the sort of figure with whom Westerners could easily empathize. This is no fault of the author’s, but the success of any book is rarely of the author’s making. We can see the book both as a mostly unqualified artistic triumph and an example of how the West tends to gravitate toward narratives that, while critical of its involvement in the world, are pessimistic about the chances of Middle Eastern countries to work for their own freedom and social progress. In some ways, Marjane Satrapi’s story parallels Edward Said’s own, seeing as both of them were from minority and higher-class social groups in their native countries and found considerable success and wide audiences among liberal Westerners. Though the two people are not perfectly congruent–they are individuals, after all–I think it is fair to take them both as representatives of a certain type. To treat works such as Said’s and Satrapi’s as critical works is to be aware of the class, religious, and geographical contexts within which they were created.
Interestingly, both of them are skeptical of Marxism and revolution in general, which is graphically illustrated in Persepolis as the young girl becomes disillusioned with both revolution and religion, with any universal hopes as both of these noble ideals are sullied by the Ayatollah’s dictatorship. Said’s Culture and Imperialism, written and published as Really Existing Socialism collapsed in Europe and the victory of neoliberal capitalism seemed assured, is equally skeptical of revolutionary action on class lines, preferring to analyze disembodied and free-floating cultural systems. It’s certainly safer that way, but in times of world crisis like this we learn to distinguish despair from realism and understand works of literature from a class perspective.
Persepolis, unlike all of the other works I have reviewed, is a work of nonfiction, which presents certain difficulties in comparing it to the rest. However, I feel as though this is both a good book to end on and probably the best of the graphic novels I have included in my research. It is a wonderful counterpoint to all the American guilt-tripping and propaganda I have encountered, and brings this exploration to an end on a positive note.