Review: Persepolis

[Image description: Cover of Vol. I. It is red with a black trim. In the middle on a blue background lined by black and gold trim in the drawing of a little girl in a heavy black veil.]

Author: Marjane Satrapi

Link: Vol I and Vol II

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★.

 The collected graphic novel of a young woman born in Iran in 1960, in time to be a young adult during the Iranian revolution. Vol II is concerned with her time in Vienna and her later return to Iran.

“Persepolis” should be required reading. With Iran still seen as the “epitome of evil” we need this humanizing narrative of its people. I was moved to tears several times of what Satrapi’s family loss over the years. Her narrative also contains unflinching accounts of racism in the West and a common theme of conflicted feelings towards one’s traditions and western culture.

There is a lot to unpack about her portrayal of a “an independent and modern woman” being defaulted to a “western woman”. Especially as the Satrapis were apparently wealthy academics. I don’t feel it is my position to comment on this. Nevertheless it is still a backlash to the common idea in the west that third world women are passive victims who never rebel until a white woman shows them how.

Nevertheless I suppose this is also the reason why the story is not a five star for me. I would not say the family didn’t suffer, they had member of it imprisoned and executed and members denied medical care due to the impassibility of the borders. Their wealth doesn’t protect them from barren supermarkets due to rationing. It doesn’t stop their neighbors from dying from a SCUD missile.

Satrapi’s displacement from the suffering of her people when she goes to Europe is never fully realized. She goes to see a young man who was a childhood friend maimed in the Iraqi-Irani war, but even that young man has the possibility of going to the U.S. for prosthesis. She never interacts with anyone of a lower class than herself affected by the war. She never makes the effort to. As such her narrative is centered in elitism. It’s very hard to really capture the full narrative of Iran when viewed from a privileged class.

I am not saying one person’s narrative should be expected to be the one of her entire people. That is an unfair standard that has been inflicted on marginalized groups and further silences their voices. This is Satrapi’s story and must be read as that alone. Nevertheless her limited view doesn’t necessarily help her narrative. It can indeed be shallow at times, and at times lead to some truly reprehensible behavior.

Satrapi however is a true story teller as she also doesn’t lie when her behavior is deplorable. I was ready to set the book down when I read she once had an innocent man arrested to save herself and worse– she found it humorous. This is very indicative of her sheltered and privileged upbringing. She didn’t even consider that this man may have a dependent family because people of lower classes simply don’t have access to the more egalitarian academic jobs her family does. Could his wife or mother support the family when he is in prison? Nevermind that in general that the lower classes are not as likely to be forgiving of ideological crimes and this man may be barred from employment and socially. Even if he only got a “few slaps” (though her boyfriend does suggest he could be hanged given how volatile the Revolutionary Guard is). Satrapi truly had no idea what life is like for other people outside her class.

I was glad when her grandmother rightfully shamed her and Satrapi apparently took it to heart. Though she seems to take it more to heart that an adored elder if angry at her than any sort of empathy for the man she wronged. Though a disturbing incident it overall adds even more veracity to the narrative.

Nevertheless despite the flaw of an elite point of view, the work is well worth reading. It captures a time in a place few in the West even now know of, and of a people whose only popular narrative is the one of the Kardashians. I think you could even understand that family a little bit more knowing why they came to L.A. in the first place.

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