Sunday, August 22, 2010
Persepolis: Breaking out of a rut with graphic art
My good friend Jess at Desperado Penguin had a great idea for a reading adventure that became The No Ruts Reading Challenge. Basically, the idea was to read a small number of books in genres and by authors you have never encountered before – or even have existing prejudices against. I had already dedicated this summer to expanding my reading horizons, so I decided to try and fit some of the books from other challenges into No Ruts.
Reaching the Bronze Level of No Ruts proved easy. I read my first-ever Banana Yoshimoto title for Dolce Belleza’s wonderful 4th Japanese Literature Challenge, and listened to my first audio book with Ellie. Silver Level – reading something despite some kind of bad review – seemed wide open. I’m a member of Goodreads, and believe me, for every person that loves a book, there’s someone else who hates it. But in the spirit of the challenge, I was looking for something different from anything I had tried before. When my 16-year-old daughter gave a lukewarm review to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, I knew I had Silver nailed: I had never read a graphic novel.
The Complete Persepolis is a fascinating memoir of the Iranian Revolution – or more correctly, revolutions, since the first one ousted the Shah, and a second brought the Islamic government to power. Marjane is the only daughter of the Satrapi family, a wealthy, well-connected and liberal clan that supports the first revolution. But as Iran moves toward fundamentalism, the family and their close friends feel like unwelcome guests in their own home. Finally, Marjane’s independent, secular attitudes become such a problem for the family – and pose such a danger to herself – that she is shipped off to boarding school in Austria. She eventually returns to Tehran and attends art school, but ultimately she must decide if she can live within the narrow confines of fundamentalist Iranian society.
The book is at turns funny, smart and annoying. The graphic novel format makes great sense here, because Satrapi is an illustrator, and she is more comfortable “speaking” in pictures than in words. In fact, the story is so compelling that I often forgot I was reading a graphic novel. Satrapi does not spare herself from the artist’s critical eye: she allows the reader to experience some difficult and unflattering episodes, a courageous and dangerous path for a memoirist who wants to remain “likeable.” Still, Marjane comes off more strident than heroic at some points. In others, she seems more annoyed that the Islamic Revolution ruined the party for Iran’s elite than concerned about the societal outcomes of regime change. But perhaps that's just the way a young woman would feel about a revolution – I certainly haven’t lived through what Satrapi did.
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in a social history of the Iranian Revolution, or for anyone trying to dip their toes into the graphic novel genre. Another rut undone. Another reward.