I am supposed to be busy reading Man Booker shortlist titles and the Classics Club “spin” choice, but have been completely railroaded by a couple of stop-you-in-your-tracks reads.
As a spunky adolescent, Marjane Sartrapi was not one to set store by blindly following the crowds or accepting the status quo without question or investigation. In many ways, she was just your average stroppy but very intelligent teenager defying tradition and knowingly testing the boundaries to see just how far she could get. The added dilemma in her case was that she was growing up in Tehran in the 1970s, where flouting convention had far more serious implications than many of can ever imagine.
The only child of radical thinking and supportive parents, and in fact the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor, Sartrapi waits until she is in her late twenties and based in Europe to recount the story of her childhood and youth – and what an unbelievably remarkable tale she tells.
Her autobiographical graphic novels “The Story of a Childhood” and “The Story of a Return” chart a no-holes-barred depiction of growing up in a civilization coping with the overthrow of the Shah’s régime, the outcome of the Islamic revolution and the devastation of war with Iraq. Book One takes ‘Marji’ from childhood through to her being exiled at fourteen years old and sent to Vienna by parents keen to spare her from the oppression of an ever more restrictive régime, and also concerned that her outspoken nature will get her into serious trouble before too long. The second, darker book covers her years as an immigrant away from home, then ironically feeling like a stranger back in her own country some four years later.
Both books are breathtaking and magical. It is impossible to imagine this story being recounted using any other kind of medium – I was new to graphic novels with this one, and not really sure what to expect before I opened to page one, but “Persepolis” has you hooked from the very first strip.
I think much of the genius behind these books lies in the decision to have this young girl tell her story (“based on my own experiences” rather than strictly autobiographical, as Satrapi specifies in this interview on Youtube) like a diary, using a vocabulary and a humour that ring so true to the voice of a ten year old girl telling it as she sees it. It’s utterly sincere and credible and chilling all at the same time. It’s childlike, yet paints a shockingly bald picture of the constraints in a very timeless way. It also allows Satrapi to have her parents and grandmother pass comment via the perception of the young girl. The portrayal of the role of the maternal granny who has lived through so much and whose opinions are so formative for her granddaughter is one of the most striking and memorable I have come across in a really long time. Her outraged reaction to a certain incident well into the story speaks volumes, and throughout Marjane knows she can count on her to be forthright and wise in the best way older people can be.
And she is very, very funny. In fact, much of these two books make you laugh out loud. This is mainly due to the comical asides of the author and the expressions she draws with such flair. This wittiness and ultimate desire for optimism also of course makes the darker side of actual events even more excruciating to read.
Not to mention the whole breadth of human emotions she conveys with just one image: time after time you get a whole scenario encapsulated in half a dozen words with one graphic image. These books are dazzling in their brilliance, historical monuments that should be studied at school and compellingly memorable.
I watched the film a couple of days ago, which deservingly won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007 and features the voices of Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni to boot. It is every bit as good and the illustrations are still constantly bouncing into my head.
So, will now no doubt spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at every dark-haired passerby in the avenues and rues here, hoping to spot that telltale beauty mole and be able to vigorously shake Ms Satrapi’s hand and ooze congratulations. Probably best not, eh. Mind you, I read somewhere recently that she may be on the move from Paris, now that the French are making it harder to smoke in public places. For her, giving up smoking would be like giving up life – and good old granny was a role model even in vice: she lived to the ripe old age of 92, having smoked her entire life. What a pair of rebels, but what a pair of incredible women.
Rating : outstanding, 10/10