Each telephone call with my parents reminded me of my cowardice and my betrayal. I was at once happy to hear their voices and ashamed to talk to them.
By now - after bestseller status and a rather wonderful film adaptation - Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis needs little introduction, I imagine. It is a brave, funny, thorny and thoughtful story-memoir about memory, loss and cultural identity, which was originally published in French in four volumes between 2000 and 2003 (the complete English translation was published in 2006; I cannot find a name for the translator of the first two parts, but the latter two were by Anjali Singh).
(Aside: Not for the first time, I find myself wistfully aware of how much more interesting the French comics industry is than its English-language equivalent, and also how little I know about where to go next. Can anyone reading this recommend some titles? I don't mind whether they're in English translation or not; I'm comfortable enough reading French, though far from fluent, and it would be good to practice on something other than academic articles.)
Persepolis is told through a combination of strikingly high-contrast black-and-white art and first-person narration, and it centres on a version of the author as she grows up in Iran and Austria before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While in large part the story Persepolis tells is a charmingly and candidly autobiographical one, it is also an act of witness and remembrance for the people and the history of Iran, too, as Satrapi - who now lives in Paris - explains in a brief foreword. It is, she says, an attempt to offer a contrast to the prevalent external image of Iran as a place of "fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism".
The first half of the book is devoted to Marjane's childhood in Iran. She is the precocious, opinionated, and sheltered child of an "avant-garde" family, given to extravagant fantasies about herself ("I was born with religion. At the age of six I was already sure I was the last prophet") and her family's role in the history of a very old and very proud country. But there is a stark contrast between the cheerful, charming, curved-lines imaginings of her ancestors fighting lions:
...and the grimmer realities of Iranian politics that begin to creep into her young awareness. When she overhears her father talking about how a cinema hosting a protest meeting burned down that evening, its doors locked from the outside to prevent the Shah's opponents from leaving and the fire brigade nowhere to be seen for forty minutes, the three-quarter page image she dreams up is much more jagged:
Through the stories of her relatives, she begins to learn about the effects of the Shah's repression, and to realise that her happy world is a precarious one. Her grandmother explains that her grandfather, the elephant-riding man above, was arrested and tortured as a possible enemy of the regime; in what will become a pattern in her life, Marjane responds by internalising this knowledge and attempting to mimic the situation, so as to better understand it:
(The chap on the left-hand side of the panel is not her grandfather, but God, with whom she has a number of conversations during her early life.)
At the same time - in tandem with the progress towards the revolution of 1979, and in large part as a (perhaps unintended) consequence of her parents' vaguely left-wing politics - Marjane comes to recognise the privileged comfort in which she lives, and develops a naive and unfocused, but nonetheless raw, sense of middle-class guilt.
Despite the suffering of some of her relatives, her family remains a wealthy one (hence, one suspects, their avant-gardeness - it is a fashion statement of the rich). There are other ways to suffer, Marjane realises, besides imprisonment at the hands of the state. In light of this new awareness, she recounts how Mehri, the family's maid, came to work for her parents:
When Mehri develops a crush on a young man next door, it becomes apparent that Marjane's father's egalitarian ideals only stretch so far. Mehri, we learn, is illiterate - despite the fact that she has lived with Marjane's family for over a decade, they have never seen fit to see her educated on even a basic level - and so Marjane innocently offers to help her by writing love letters to her crush. When he learns what is going on, however, Marjane's father puts a stop to things in no uncertain terms: the young man in question is the son of the family next door, whereas Mehri is only a maid and "In this country, you must stay within your own social class."
Marjane is still young, though, and Satrapi makes it clear that her awareness, too, is limited. Partly, this is done by showing Marjane be a bit of a brat every so often; my (morbid) favourite was when, after the overthrow of the Shah and the release of large numbers of surviving political prisoners, she tramples all over the careful, comforting lies one of her friends has been told about the whereabouts of her father. "Don't you know", she tells the other girl loftily, "that when they keep saying someone is on a trip it really means he is dead?" Cue traumatised child and much parental disapproval, to which Marjane's response is not compassion for the upset girl but a march to her room filled with wounded dignity, and the narrated caption, "Nobody will accept the truth."
When the Shah finally gets the boot, Marjane is not the only whose optimism is cruelly trampled. (In all this, Marjane becomes something like an embodiment of Iran, all dreams of past glories, passionate attachment to the cause, and crushing disappointment.) Her uncle has high hopes that the religious authorities' dominance after the revolution of 1979 is only temporary:
It is not only hindsight, though, that makes it clear this won't be so. Again, Marjane is the voice of Iran, buffeted by the winds of change and believing what she hears:
The tumble into a new repression is swift, and perhaps not helped by the fact that so many of the mobile elite - the educated and the wealthy - quietly flee the country, leaving the poor and the optimistic to the mercies of the regime.
And then the war with Iraq begins, and things become worse still. Satrapi's words and art offer a moving testimony to the way the war tears up a generation of young men, and leaves everyone else in a state persistent, paralysing horror. As the bombing begins to hit residential areas, it takes on the tenor of a war for survival, and the poor and the young are co-opted to be its loudest supporters and most eager martyrs. The scars, though, run deep; the images Marjane conjures of how she remembers the sloganeering propaganda and the aftermath are eloquently grim:
The poor and the young are co-opted, too, into the enforcement of social conservatism, and the chador-clad silhouettes of disapproving women stalk Marjane like crows eyeing up a meal (click for a larger version of this image):
The final panel's little dig at the liberated western world's own repressions is pointed, and an indication of what is to come; but for the time being the focus remains firmly on life inside Iran. Marjane's parents consider leaving the country, since they have the means, but reject the idea for the time being, knowing that life elsewhere will be difficult in its own ways ("Maybe we should leave too..." says Marjane's mother; "So that I can become a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?" replies her father).
Marjane, though - with a child's sense of melodrama, if not an unjustified one - sees her future prospects narrowing before her eyes. She longs to follow in the footsteps of Marie Curie, but reflects with alarm that by the time she is the age at which Curie studied chemistry, she will "probably have ten children". Again, Satrapi is not afraid to poke gentle fun at her younger self, even as she makes a serious point:
At length, Marjane's parents decide to send her to school in Vienna; again, their social class and wealth gives Marjane more options and protection that many of her peers enjoy. With trepidation and grief, Marjane leaves Iran and her family behind:
The second part of the book focuses on Marjane's experiences abroad, and her decision to return home, despite everything. The central theme is dislocation: while Marjane is out of step with the behavourial norms that are being enforced - if not exactly embraced by all - in Iran, she also finds herself at odds with much of what she encounters in Europe.
On her arrival, she is greeted by a family friend named Shirin who has been abroad for some time, and Shirin's shiny superficiality (her conversation includes such gems as "This is my raspberry-scented pen, but I have strawberry and blackberry ones, too") is jarring to an earnest adolescent who has left behind a brutalised and brutalising country. It is not hard to imagine that Shirin's bright chatter is as much deliberate displacement mechanism as anything - that she feels some pain over what people she knows are suffering back home, and doesn't really know how to deal with that or what to say about it - but it strikes the first blow of Marjane's disillusionment. (And a survivor's guilt of her own at having escaped.)
Marjane meets many generous and well-meaning people, and is able to exercise her nimble mind through a lot of energising and radicalising books (and some rather less so). She makes friends, gains a boyfriend, and learns to cope - sort of - on her own. But she is irritated by the cynicism she meets: the way many of her oh-so-intellectual friends, cushioned by their privilege just as Marjane herself once was, treat the sorts of things she has experienced as items of abstract interest, to be discussed with studied, rational cool but certainly not something to get emotional over:
The mohawk guy here, Momo, embodies this, delivering pseudo-insightful speeches like, "Life is pain. Pain is everything. Everything is nothingness. Therefore life is nothingness. When man recognizes this hole, he can no longer live like an earthworm, inventing games of leaders and followers to forget his fickleness." When Marjane snaps back, "There are people who give their lives for values like liberty", he sneers, "It's just a distraction from boredom." He, again, is young and naive, but - understandably - it stings Marjane nonetheless to hear Iran's traumas so summarily dismissed.
Marjane also struggles both with overt racism and with a more pervasive sense of not-belonging, of having to constantly represent her country to others. A long awaited visit from her mother is a relief and a haven, soothing aches and pains she had hardly even realised were slowly but surely wearing her down ("It relaxed me to talk to her. It had been so long since I'd been able to talk to someone without having to explain my culture"). She does her best to blend in, to find a middle way:
But the strain of it all sends her spiralling into substance abuse and depression. Naturally, when she returns to the home she has longed for, she finds things no easier for her hybrid self ("I was nothing. I was a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the west. I had no identity"). But she does at least have the comfort of her family around her, and a cause she can become involved in.
Satrapi's portrayal of her/Marjane's whirlwind relationship with the attractive Reza is both clear-eyed and saddening. It reminded me of the melancholy section of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake when her protagonist Gogol gets married, to a fellow Bengali-American. In both cases, the marriage is in some sense an attempt to make peace with the past, and reclaim a heritage that the character has previously betrayed and deserted, and feels lost without; in both cases, this pressure of expectation on the marriage, this collision of identities, causes it to fracture.
For Marjane, too, the marriage is derailed by a conflict between two different measures of freedom, each equally precious to her. On the one hand, being back home means she is once again free to be Iranian, and be among Iranians, without apology or negotiation, without trying to assimilate herself to another culture and rethink her every utterance in another language. On the other hand, she cannot be an Iranian woman in Iran without compromising in other ways: in how she dresses in public, in the opinions she voices, and in the way she interacts with men, including Reza. When you have to worry about whether a strand of your hair is showing every time you leave the house, she reflects, you start to lose your grip on the wider issues like whether you have freedom of speech or a say in government. Life is a constant, low-level harassment that could erupt into more at any time.
The contradiction between the public and the private self becomes oppressive. She and Reza marry in a hurry because it is the only way they can be together publicly; but the rush means that they have no chance to get to know each other properly, and to discover that they are, in fact, deeply incompatible.
What is heartening about Persepolis, and challenging to western assumptions about the lives of women in places like Iran, is the level of accommodation and subversion with which the rules are approached. The veil, for example, does not guarantee meek feminine submission, although its enforcement on a state level clearly seeks that; nor are decisions about how and why it is worn remotely simple (or always coerced) on an individual or even a community level. Satrapi has (wistful) fun showing her younger self flanked by many other girls in her irreverent non-conformity:
But she also repeatedly shows the ways in which adult Iranian woman create and defend spaces of self-expression and self-determination. They are eloquent, they are determined, they are organised, and often they are also un-ignorably loud:
They also - and in this Satrapi's portrayals remind me very much of women I encountered in Syria and Jordan when I visited there in 2010 - stretch and test both the law and wider cultural expectations at every turn, and as far as they can. Even outward conformity can hide a wealth of small rebellions: