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A Double Life in Black and White

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The two volumes of Persepolis, the implacably witty and fearless “graphic memoir” of the Iranian illustrator Marjane Satrapi, relate through an inseparable fusion of cartoon images and verbal narrative the story of a privileged young girl’s childhood experience of Iran’s revolution of 1979, its eight-year war with Iraq, her exile to Austria during her high school years, and her subsequent experience as a university student, young artist, and wife in Tehran after her return to Iran from Europe in 1998. That Persepolis 1, a book in which it is almost impossible to find an image distinguished enough to consider an independent piece of visual art, and equally difficult to find a sentence which in itself surpasses the serviceable, emerges as a work so fresh, absorbing, and memorable is an extraordinary achievement.

In the cartoon world she creates, pictures function less as illustration than as records of action, a kind of visual journalism. On the other hand, dialogue and description, changing unpredictably in visual style and placement on the page within its balloons, advance frame by frame like the verbal equivalent of a movie. Either element would be quite useless without the other; like a pair of dancing partners, Satrapi’s text and images comment on each other, enhance each other, challenge, question, and reveal each other. It is not too fanciful to say that Satrapi, reading from right to left in her native Farsi, and from left to right in French, the language of her education, in which she wrote Persepolis, has found the precise medium to explore her double cultural heritage.

She is a rare kind of artist, one who makes use not only of her talents, but a disciplined, deliberate use of her imperfections as a verbal and visual stylist, not attempting to conceal them, but to incorporate them as part of her subject. In Volume 2, in a chapter called “The Socks,” there is a poignant, absurd, and enraging sequence that explains the source of the odd truncation and awkward gestures of Satrapi’s images, particularly of bodies. The art department of her university in Tehran, under the supervision of mullahs, was forbidden to offer traditional anatomy classes. Female models posed covered head to toe in sheets like black chadors, while male models were allowed to pose in marginally more revealing street clothes. When Satrapi, an indefatigable student, stays late to draw a seated male model, she is challenged by a supervisor, who tells her it is against the moral code for her to look at the man she is drawing. When she asks with incredulous flippancy if she should look instead at the door while drawing the man, the supervisor replies, “Yes.”

Satrapi herself has said in an interview, “There were many things I didn’t do because I couldn’t do them. But I was clever enough to take my lack and make a style of it.” It is precisely this quality of inventive limitation, the visible struggle with the accidents of restriction, of fruitful disillusionment, that makes Persepolis such a winning, rueful, and effective autobiography, the story of the creation of a person, of a way of being in the world, partly shaped by heritage, partly at odds with it.

Persepolis renders human actions, ideas, and feelings as having the vitality, quality of apprenticeship, and crudity of cartoons. As cartoons, we see the world in what we do not recognize is our own style, confined in frames we are unaware of; gods, rulers, and lovers appear to us, at least in part, as our own creations. Persepolis, with its narrow range of styl-ized cartoon gestures and expressions, obliquely makes the orthodoxies Satrapi encounters—the “divinely chosen” monarchy of the Shah, as Iranian schoolbooks of the period declared, the Islamic theocracy that replaces him, the smugly xenophobic Catholicism she confronts in her Austrian school years—seem presumptuous. How can creatures pretend to know God with such detail and confidence when they are still in search of their own characters, when they can know so little of themselves?

Volume 1 of Persepolis opens with a black-and-white image evoking a grammar school camera portrait of Marjane Satrapi in Tehran in 1980, at the age of ten, her hair covered with the black veil it is now obligatory for girls to wear at school. Whether or not Satrapi recognized it at the time, the history and character of her family made her a uniquely well-placed witness to the wrenching instability of her country’s political odyssey, a saga her father describes as “2500 years of tyranny and submission,” in which her own family underwent great reversals of fortune.

Satrapi was born into an aristocratic family, a great-granddaughter of the Qajar dynasty Shah who was overthrown in 1927 in a British-sponsored coup by a soldier who became Reza Shah, the father of the Shah who would in turn be exiled in 1979. Reza Shah confiscated the land and personal fortune of Satrapi’s grandfather, as he notoriously did the holdings of a number of other powerful and wealthy families when he came to power. Satrapi’s grandfather also served as a prime minister under Reza Shah. When he later became a Communist, the Shah periodically imprisoned him; during his detention he was tortured. Satrapi’s father’s family were also active on the left. An uncle and other relatives were involved in the creation of a short-lived independent republic in Iranian Azerbaijan, a coup crushed by the Shah. Members of her family’s circle were imprisoned under the Shah, freed, and again imprisoned under Khomeini. A beloved uncle was executed by the Islamists as a “Communist spy,” his own uncle having been earlier executed by the Shah. Satrapi’s favorite childhood reading, she tells us, was “a comic book entitled ‘Dialectic Materialism,’” while her mother’s favorite was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins.

Satrapi’s family was distinguished not only by its aristocratic background and tradition of dissenting political activism, but in the environment created by the devoted partnership of her parents, a marriage rare by the standards of any culture, but even more extraordinary in a setting where family custom and law itself still define women as men’s inferiors, where as one of Satrapi’s friends says with bitter humor, a mother’s pet name for a son is “doudoul tala, golden penis.” Marjane was as beloved as if she were a son, and her education and ambitions taken as seriously as a boy’s; in contrast to the social and political chaos outside, Satrapi’s home sheltered an enviable society, a place of freedom, profound affection, learning, trust, and outspoken discussion. The forthright honesty her family nurtures in her becomes both a source of predictable endangerment and a source of unpredictable salvation.

In a hilarious and taboo-breaking sequence in Persepolis, Marjane’s parents and grandmother respond with admiring sang-froid to her declared ambition at the age of six to become the “Last Prophet” and found a new religion, which she symbolizes by drawing herself as a popular Iranian mythological image, Khorshid Khanoum, the Sun Lady, whose head is surrounded with rays. In Satrapi’s drawing, followers kneel at her feet, addressing her with comical reverence as “Celestial Light.” “I am the Last Prophet,” declares the child in the next panel to a group of bearded prophets, including Jesus, who collectively exclaim in response, “A woman?,” though no one seems to hesitate because she is a child, or worry about her appetite for hearing her own praise. This clear-eyed and not untender scrutiny of worldly ambition mixed with dreams of grandiose messianic mission prevents the sequence from being arch, negligible, or even irreverent. In showing a child’s genuine wish for the power to do good, Satrapi does not ignore her own ambition for the last word, for authority and adulation, for disciples who murmur epithets in her praise. She eyes herself as keenly as—more keenly than—the clubby guild of male prophets whose only response is to be aghast that a female claims to represent God, to be their moral equal before God. Satrapi presents the messianic ambition as human, belonging to men and women, adults and children, an impulse shared by both the worldly and unworldly.

When Marjane writes a “holy book,” her eighth rule, inspired by her indomitable, beloved grandmother, who suffers from arthritic pains, is that it will be forbidden for old people to suffer. “In that case,” says her grandmother, “I’ll be your first disciple.” Marjane, who wants to be “Justice, Love and the Wrath of God all in one,” has intimate, occasionally imperious conversations with a white-bearded God. “You think I look like Marx?” he asks her over a companionable glass of milk.

It is not toward the idea of God that Satrapi is irreverent; it is toward a too credulous approach to the ambiguities of human motives and the temptations of moral aspiration. She sees how religious faith may serve as an exemption or protection from the discipline of self-knowledge, can function as a way of freeing a person from the work of moral inquiry, and create an environment in which a person’s will and desires are so identified with the divine that he feels anything is permitted to him. Satrapi is the moral equivalent of an insomniac; she allows herself no moral repose. In a powerful and funny moment, after a conversation with her mother about the need to forgive people who had done harm in the service of the previous regime, Satrapi draws herself making speeches about forgiveness to a mirror, rapt in the image of her own invincible goodness. Satrapi may very well be a believer in God; it is above all toward herself that she is an agnostic.

The household her parents create, which manages to be both visionary and secure in its traditions, is, however, surrounded by a society they did not create. Even though her parents encourage her to explore the limits of her moral imagination and powers, Marjane painfully discovers the limits of their powers, overmatched by the entrenched Iranian class system.

Although Marjane grows up reading the novels of Ashraf Darvishian, “a kind of local Charles Dickens,” whose books describe the suffering of Iranian children from poor families, who work as porters, carpet weavers, and even three-year-old windshield washers, the Satrapi family itself employs a child maid, Mehri, who “was eight years old when she had to leave her parents’ home to come to work for us.”

Mehri, ten years old when Marjane is born, acts as her caretaker and companion. “Like most peasants, she didn’t know how to read and write,” though Marjane’s mother makes failed efforts to teach her. At sixteen, Mehri falls into a dreamy fantasy romance with a boy who lives in the apartment building opposite. She and the boy begin to correspond, with Marjane acting as Cyrano de Bergerac, writing love letters which Mehri signs, and reading Hossein’s letters aloud to her. Mehri poses in the letters as Marjane’s sister, until her own younger sister, who works for Marjane’s uncle, discovers the romance, and in a fit of jealousy, discloses Mehri’s and Hossein’s flirtation. The boy’s ardor cools as soon as he learns that Mehri is not Marjane’s sister, but a maid, and he instantly relinquishes her letters, all written in Marjane’s hand, to Marjane’s father. He gently explains to his shocked daughter that “their love was impossible” because “in this country you must stay within your own social class.” The child crawls into the heartbroken teenage maid’s bed to comfort her, but for the first time she has seen a way in which her father himself is helpless, powerless to extend to another child the privilege and protection he offers her.

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