I have been in a funk. A reading funk. I keep buying books and giving up – usually unheard of. The 7 Historic Killings of .. whatever? (It won the Booker but is unreadable unless you’re in the mood for a big challenge.) I look at my recent reads on the blog and see I haven’t truly enjoyed anything since All the Light We Cannot See back in JULY.
I needed something different. I needed my first graphic novel. I needed to head into an aisle of the bookshop that I have thus far never darkened, peopled by the pony-tailed; the crepuscular. (I’ll save you a google: it means “of the night.” A marvellous word, which I encourage you to bring into wider usage.)
At this stage you may be wondering where this is going and needing a stiff drink. May I take this opportunity to clarify that graphic novel doesn’t mean a graphic novel, as one friend supposed. It means a glorified comic. But I wasn’t about to burrow into Spiderman. I needed a comic with credentials.
Persepolis was made into a film a few years back, and sounded the touchpoint of all things cultural (Iranian revolution, graphic adaptation of the bestseller, yada.) So when Shoshi (who writes an excellent and far more erudite book blog than I) listed it as one of her reads for 2016, I thought I had to give it a go.
Persepolis is an autobiography, in graphic form, of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian girl, growing up in Iran in the 1980s. She belongs to a liberal, modernist family, with more than a few leftist, Marxist, revolutionary relations. To such a family, the Revolution of 1979 (overthrowing the Shah and gradually instating a fundamentalist Islamic regime) quickly becomes a horror. Coming from an essentially Western viewpoint it is as if we go on the journey with her from a normal, modern country to a repressive regime, with the introduction of headscarves and the steady erosion of political, social and female liberties. All of this is told through a child’s eyes, so that the political messaging and dark stories have a fresh interest and horror, seen as they are for the first time.
Satrapi’s real skill is in merging the political with the personal. Never does this book become an abstract exercise, intertwined as it is with Marjane entering teenagerhood and craving Kim Wilde posters, experimenting with punk, and answering back to her parents.
In the second half of the book, Marji flees Iran, by now at war with Iraq, and heads to study in Vienna where (unsurprisingly as she is only 14 years old) all does not run smoothly. Satrapi is amusing here in depicting the school social groups and her attempts to fit in, but this is in fact a darker part of the book than the missiles falling on Teheran. Alone, adrift, caught up with the wrong things and the wrong people, there is real bleakness. It shows the power of home and family – that European peace and development is nothing compared to her Teheran family and home, despite the repression, despite the dangers.
And what of the whole being-a-comic thing? I wondered throughout whether this would be better told as a usual novel, but there’s no doubt that the drawings brought something huge and unique to proceedings. There’s real character, detail, wit, pathos humour, creativity. Childish flights of fancy are brought to vivid life, unbearable topics can be faced.
The book is best and feels the most unusual when in Iran, but it’s pretty great throughout. It’s something different, and something rather marvellous. Give it a go.