Review: The Complete Persepolis

persepolisThe Complete Persepolis, comprising Persepolis and Persepolis II, is an autobiographical graphic novel following a girl growing up in revolutionary Iran, punctuated by a few years spent in Europe to escape the growing authoritarianism of the Iranian revolutionaries.

In the absence of very much time this week – I’m moving to a new job and a new house and it’s all very hectic – here are a few thoughts on Persepolis (fewer than it properly deserves) that I managed to scribble down on the bus.

It’s written with the express intention (I can’t find the quote) of redressing the West’s image of Iran as a country solely associated with terrorism and fundamentalism. It’s this intention that I want to talk about here, because it throws up some interesting questions of genre and cultural positioning.

Form equals function – that’s the one equation every English student learns. The graphic novel form Satrapi’s using is ideologically American – the form of myths like Superman and Captain America. Satrapi’s positioning her story not as American per se but as deliberately America-centric, a way of explaining Iran to Americans.

I didn’t realise this until about halfway through Persepolis, but its black-and-white art represents no difference between the Iranian characters and the European ones – so that although the characters see a difference, we don’t. This is, of course, a deliberate strategy: one which removes an unconscious barrier to understanding and empathy which we (by which I mean white Westerners, the assumed audience for the book) may not even be aware exists, but which in the very act of so doing reveals that barrier to us (if we’re paying attention). It’s a strategy that reflects one of the most insidious of Western media practices – the “whitewashing” of book covers, films and TV to make them sell better, sit more comfortably with their assumed audiences – back at the reader, and makes it precisely uncomfortable.

But I wonder, too, if there aren’t issues with this (admittedly compromised) Westernisation of an Iranian childhood. A very common form of racism is assuming that one story, or one person, from a non-Western culture is automatically an authority on that culture: and Persepolis feels like it’s indulging that assumption, or at least making it a path of least resistance, privileging its own narrative as the Story of Iran, the sole mediator between America and Iran. The question is, is the text aware of this privileging? Does it problematise it?

Firstly, I think if we take Satrapi’s avowed intention – single-handedly redressing Iran’s image in the West – entirely at face value, the joke is really on us. As I mentioned above, a good quarter of the book takes place in Europe, and although in this section it doesn’t stop asking questions about nationality and identity, these questions actually frequently revolve around a disconnect from Iranian culture, a feeling of no longer belonging. It’s this European section that really makes the book not about Iran but about Marjane: a story about a person not about a country.

Secondly, one of the lovely and unexpected things about this autobiographical story is the way that characters set up to be important – Marjane’s first love or the woman she first shares a room with in Europe or a friend made just before she leaves Iran – frequently vanish within ten pages or so, with the words: “I never saw her again” – not because they die or are disappeared, just because they lose contact. It’s the sort of thing that happens in life all the time, but hardly ever in fiction (remember those American comics, where pretty much everything is significant?), and once again it feels like Persepolis is problematising its own authority, throwing up challenges to how and why we’re reading this book.

There’s much more to Persepolis than this thinking about textual and cultural authority, of course – I haven’t really touched on Marjane’s coming of age story, the way the book treats Iranian history (Persepolis would be an interesting companion to Kader Abdolah’s The King, I think), the politics and ideology surrounding the revolution. I’m not sure how much I actually enjoyed it – it was a quick read at Christmas – but I think there’s plenty more there to be thought about.

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