Marjane Satrapi’s book Persepolis is alternatively called by the critics a “graphic novel” or an autobiographical comic sketch. The book is made up of a series of black and white illustrations, arranged in little episodes that represent different scenes from the life of Marjane’s family, in Tehran. It begins immediately after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and continues with the first four years of the war between Iraq and Iran.
The main character in the story is Marjane herself, who is ten years old when the revolution starts.
Although both the language of the novel and the illustrations are very simple and straightforward, only revealing the essential facts of the story, the book is nevertheless very effective and delivers its message as well as any other text. The scarcity of text doesn’t cut down on its literary value, on the contrary, the book seems to gain a lot from this brief and report-like writing style. The main reason for this is the fact that the author creates a sharp contrast between the objective, documentary style, with its brief sentences and its matter-of- fact information and the personal narrative that is actually conveyed to the reader.
The subjective point of view in the book is only hinted at in an apparently impersonal tone. Moreover, Marjane Satrapi intentionally substitutes the ten years old girl for herself, and thus manages to register her reaction as a child to the religious and political movements in Iran. The girl actually grows as a character by the end of the book, passing, like any character of fiction, from one stage to another in her development. This is achieved mainly through the careful notation of the child’s reactions to every event mentioned in the book. Although all the statements in the novel seem unbiased, Marjane Satrapi succeeds in conveying her own message as if she had written a truly subjective and explanatory narrative of her experiences.
Although very succinctly, the book captures the absurdities of the fundamentalist movement in Marjane’s country, with the array of social and political transformations that took place afterwards. All this is done in an ironic tone, although again, the writing style remains unornamented.
One by one the main social and political problems are displayed, from the dispute around the subject of the veil that the women have to wear all the time, according to the fundamentalists, to the closing of the all bilingual schools and of all universities for two years, or the closing of the American embassy because of the attacks of the religious fanatics. The author cleverly unmasks the backward views of the new political regime, who was capable of closing the schools so as to ward off the “dangerous” capitalist ideas that were cultivated there:
“The educational system and what is written in schoolbooks, at all levels, are decadent. Everything needs to be revised to ensure that our children are not led astray.” (Satrapi, 25)
At the same time that the crucial events of going on in the country are related (mostly in the form of television reports, as the family actually found out the news probably), there are also many events that involve the family as well, like the women’s protest against fundamentalism and “the veil”, which is rapidly suppressed by the political forces, or the attack that the girl’s mother suffers on the street because she doesn’t wear the veil.
Society also changes, and the parents of the girl note that the same people who engaged in usual “liberal” activities before, like wearing “modern” clothes or drinking, suddenly change these habits outwardly and start lying. The moment when Marjane’s mother tells her to tell everyone that all she does at home is pray is very ironical: “If anyone asks you what you do during the day, you say pray, you understand?”(Satrapi, 29) In very few words and illustrations, Satrapi manages to portray the Iranian society after the Islamic Revolution, with its insincerity and fear of persecution.
All through the book, Marjane evolves by reacting to the environment that surrounds her and by understanding new things. The author carefully transcribes her reactions: for example, during first episode or “The Veil”, the girl remarks that she “really didn’t know what to think about the veil” (Satrapi, 2), capturing thus the dilemma and confusion of the child, who although deeply religious, was at the same time used to the modern ways of her family.
Other reactions and feelings are registered in the book, like the dream of the girl to become a prophet, or the moment when the family comes back from Spain to find out that the war had begun in Iran, and Marjane experiences a feeling of patriotism, and discovers that she wanted to fight for her country. Her desire to become a chemist like Marie Currie follows, and then more rebellious years as an adolescent who listens to American music.
All these examples and many more, manage to portray ten years old Marjane as a strong character who is able keeps her views in the midst of the general confusion and fear, and to cope with the war and violence that surrounded them. The book makes a good literary work especially because of the personal voice of Marjane, which although it is not really heard as such, vibrates through the ironic and objective style. The genre that Satrapi creates is thus at once documentary because it is true and autobiographic, and literary, since as all literary works, it manages to convey much more than can be read at the surface of the text
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003