Monday, November 7, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Complete Persepolis'

The Book: The Complete Persepolis

The Author and Artist: Marjane Satrapi

How I Found It: I saw the film in theatres upon its release, but didn't get to read the graphic novel until it was assigned for my course.

The Review: I'm sure I'm not the only one to have seen a movie long ago, not having read the book first, only to read the book years later, realize it's amazing, and then find the movie doesn't quite measure up to it. I had that experience with this book and its movie. I vividly remembered loving the movie and being outraged that it didn't win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that year, even when I knew that as an animated film, Ratatouille far outclassed it. I loved the book just as much as I remembered loving the film, fortunately, and was more than pleased to talk about it in class.

Persepolis is the story of Marjane Satrapi's girlhood and then her teenage years, all taking place during the tumultuous years of the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Her parents are somewhat more modern than their countrymen, and Marjane grows up surrounded by rock music, forbidden parties, and a certain knowledge about what's really going on in the country, contrary to the filtered version given to her by teachers and even the television.

Marjane grows up among the horrors of war; before she is even fourteen, she will see her friend's dead body following an explosion, learn some painful truths about class differences, and eventually have to leave Iran to live in Austria, when her parents decide she could have a better and brighter life ahead of her. In Austria, Marjane is faced with unraveling the complexities of her identity: in Austria, she is too Iranian; in Iran, she is too Western. Not only that, but she must begin to make sense of boys, politics, and her emerging artistic sense.

There are just certain things, I've realized now, that can only be conveyed by a graphic novel, by words and images combined. Silent panels, as I will mention in a forthcoming review of another graphic novel, have been the thing that most captivated me thus far in my coursework. There's a few here that really strike me: Marjane's horror upon seeing her friend's body in the rubble, or the silent chaos of a party interrupted by the guardians of the revolution. There's nothing that can match a series of wordless panels, frozen images of terror or nothingness, in emotional power or intellectual stimulation. Satrapi uses the graphic novel format to great effect.

It's one thing to have a recurring motif in a novel; it's another to have a visual motif in a graphic novel, so that the reader can see the repetition of certain images and how they change over time. The raised fist, the all-seeing eye, a farewell at an airport--all of these images are repeated more than once, and the meaning is different each time. That was another thing I found worked better in a graphic novel than straight prose. Even the color scheme was effective--the black and white color scheme meant, to me, not to get hung up on the details of what someone looked like, what that might mean for their nationality, and to instead look at the characters as people.

Technical considerations aside, Marjane's story was an emotional ride and an eye opener, one I'm not sorry to have read. Marjane's parents explain the truth behind the Shah's rule to her, but it also serves as an insight for Western readers, a look into what went on "behind the scenes," so to speak, the things that occurred in Iran that didn't make it to the Western news-watching public. This isn't always about the grand narrative of the revolution--it's about the lives of the individual people caught up in it. Marjane's parents, who risk their lives several times by protesting. Marjane's grandmother, full of wisdom and often helping the young Marjane on her path to self-discovery. Marjane's Uncle Anoosh, a former political prisoner Marjane becomes attached to. It's clear how much Marjane cares about these people, and how much we should care, and as a reader, I became emotionally invested fast. I cried several times as Marjane lost friends and family members, or came to some sort of revelation about herself or her country.

There are several incidents that will really stay with me--Marjane learning about class differences as she sees that poor young men are being sent to war (99-100), her grandmother's life advice (150), Marjane telling off some guardians (301), Marjane's mother's reaction to her impending marriage (317). Even if the story was painful at times, it was still an unflinching look at growing up, one that I could even relate to at times, despite not having gone through nearly as much as Marjane had. I'll certainly want to reread this in the future.

The movie was a good representation of the story, for sure, but so much was condensed or cut out entirely that it just didn't stack up in my mind. There's none of the graphic novel's insight into the ideology of the veil, and we barely see anything of Marjane evolving into an artist, which perhaps the most fascinating section, to me. Moments like the lineup in the second volume, where we see the hair and clothes each girl has under her veil, highlighting her individuality, are gone, and I felt that a good portion of the story's meaning went with it.

This graphic novel is an especially good choice for teenage girls as well as older women, and educational to boot. If someone is hesitant to read it, I'd say show them the movie first and see how they react--if they like it, be sure they read the graphic novel to get the full story. If there's a teenage girl in your life who might not appreciate graphic novels just yet (or a boy who's interested in history, or vice versa!), I'd say give them this one and see what happens.

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