Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
A blog entry by Daan Kremers (2025037), Martin Nikolov (2025197), Kiki Mertens (2022403), Charlotte van Vessem (2014536), Sean Torres (563898), Marjolein van de Laar (2027877), Levi Wolters (2011263)
Introduction – What is a Graphic Novel?
The term ‘graphic-novel’ comes from the comic-book writer and artist Will Eisner. In 1978 he used the term to describe a number of comic books that combined to a book-length story. These days the term ‘graphic-novel’ is part of the the Oxford English Dictionary: “a full-length (esp. science fiction or fantasy) story published in comic-strip format” (OED). The term was originally used to distinguish itself from popularized comics in the 1950’s. In the 50’s comics suffered a lot of critique, this happened because the content of these popular comics touched the edge of normativity. The American government took a serious look at the content of comic-books and a diverse number became restricted. Eisner used the term ‘graphic-novel’ to distinguish his work from the comics that suffered critique. We could assume that Eisner had to depict himself free of the critique and therefore he explored the path of the graphic-novel, he himself writes: “the story is the most critical component in a comic . . . the intellectual frame on which all artwork rests” (Eisner, 1996 2). Another writer depicts the graphic-novel according to its realism. E.M. Forster says that “time inside a novel is undeniable; this time allows for experience, the essence of a novel’s realism” (Forster 44). The idea that our experiences are represented in the novel as authentic as possible is the premise whereby we distinguish comic-books and graphic-novels.
With this in mind, one must understand how autobiographic Marjane Satrapi’s novel is in nature, only then can they examine its perspectives and motives and how they are affected by the format and its structure. And so, the next part will give a short summary of the life and book of Satrapi.
The book starts with a written introduction about the history of Iran, and a short explanation of why it was written. The rest of the novel consists of comic-style panel drawings and text, and is divided into chapters that each tell their own story, but are part of the bigger overarching theme of the novel. The novel itself can be divided into two parts (which were originally two separate books): ‘I - The Story of a Childhood’ and ‘II - The Story of a Return’.
The Story of Childhood part I begins in 1980, when Satrapi -called Marji in the book- is ten years old. This is the time of the Islamic Revolution, and Satrapi focuses on her experiences of growing up during this time, especially about the increase of religious extremities and the role of women in society, while also providing general background information about the Revolution for the reader. Marji’s family belongs to the upper-middle class and her parents raise her with Western-political views from an early age. Marji wants to get to know her family history, and she gets to meet her uncle Anoosh, who was imprisoned for being a communist revolutionary, and his stories cause her to value ideas of equality and resistance. Her parents often go out to participate in demonstrations against the Shah, but are disappointed when, after the Shah's exile, religious extremism gains influence in the Iranian society. The new government drastically reforms the society of Iran. Social freedoms are heavily restricted, which is especially significant women and girls, who know have to cover themselves in public. Iran declares war against Iraq. Life becomes increasingly harder and fearful for Marji’s family, but they nevertheless decide to stay. Two years into war, the house of their neighbours gets hit by a missile, killing the family. This leads Marji to rebel against the regime, which makes her family worry about her safety. Eventually, they send Marji off to Austria for her education. This is where the first part ends.
The second part begins in Vienna, where Marji starts her life in Europe at a boarding school. She doesn’t speak German and as such feels isolated, but she overcomes the language barrier and culture shock and makes friends. Away from home, Marji's Iranian identity deepens, and she is expelled from the school after she insults a nun who makes xenophobic comments against her. Continuously moving homes, she starts to use and abuse drugs, which leads to friction in multiple areas in her life; her relationship breaks down, her grades drop and eventually, she is kicked out by her landlady, leading her to become homeless for two months. She gets bronchitis and almost dies, but is rescued and she wakes up in a hospital. After this experience, she decides to return to Iran, after four years in Vienna.
Back in Iran, she speaks about the horrors of the war with her family. After hearing their stories, vouches to never speak of her time in Vienna, because it makes her feel ashamed. However, she falls into a depression and attempts suicide two times. After beating the odds and surviving the second attempt, she takes it as a sign and makes a recovery. She meets Reza, with whom she starts a relationship, and they both get into art school at university. As their relationship and study programmes become more serious, they encounter problems with the authorities; women are not allowed to draw nudes, leading Marji and friends to host their own anatomy drawing classes at home, and Reza and Marji get in trouble for holding hands in public by the religious police. In 1991, Reza proposes marriage to Marji, who is reluctant, but after some contemplation, she accepts. Marji soon discovers that she feels trapped in the role of a permanent wife. She realises that she no longer loves Reza and wants a divorce. A friend advises that she should still stay with Reza, since divorced women are held in disregard, but her grandmother urges her to divorce if she really doesn’t love her husband. Eventually, she and Reza divorce. She tells her parents, who are happy for her and suggest her to move out of Iran for good, since she can find a better life in Europe. She makes up her mind, and tours around the country one last time, visiting important places and graves of family members. The book ends in 1994, as Marji moves to Paris.
Satrapi After the Book
As the book ended with her departure for Paris, Satrapi started an art study in France. She met Art Spiegelman who had written Maus, a graphic novel that tells the story about the Holocaust through the lives of a few Jewish survivors. This inspired Satrapi to start making graphic novels. Her book tells the story how she grew up and shows at the same time the effects of the religious revolution in Iran.
In writing this book, it appears as if Satrapi is showing her political engagement. However, this is not her intention. She has the need to create her own standpoint. It is not about the political or sociological background of her country. “I wanted to tell my own story in Persepolis, but I also wanted to expresses how it feels when the country you grew up in out of the sudden totally changes, your right become under pressure of the right of God, the state, and the majority.” (Vuylsteke, 2015, pp. 1–3)
She shows that the book is universal, because it is a human who is in the centre of all the happenings. The importance, according to Satrapi, is that we don’t look to the differences between people, but take a look to what is human. Her story is about repression, but not per se political repression. It is about a person that doesn’t feel understood by her surroundings. This is a universal problem, and not one specific to Iran. She shows what is “human”, not what is “Iran”.
The Truth of Persepolis
Persepolis is an autobiographical, graphic novel. But how close to the truth can “A comic book that takes itself seriously” be? (Chaney, 2011). Looking at the style of Persepolis, one might say that black and white cartoons cannot represent the events happening in the book realistically, but that does not mean that the story cannot feel real to the reader on many levels. One of many examples can be found on page 142 of Persepolis (Satrapi, 2008). Neda’s house was destroyed in a bombing and Marjane and her mother walk by it. When Marji looks at the rubble, she notices the bracelet Neda showed her earlier. The next panel shows a sad and shocked Marjane, but it states: “The bracelet was still attached to… I don’t know what…” (Satrapi, 2008, p. 142) There is an interesting tension between Marji’s reaction in the drawing, and the statement she makes in the caption. This tension conveys to the reader that Marjane does in fact know what that bracelet was attached to, but that she, when writing the captions for her book decades later, still cannot ‘speak’ the words. It tells the reader something about the two Marjanes in this panel. Teenager Marjane shows her reaction to a traumatic event and adult Marjane emphasizes how hard this event, years later, still is on her. This moment in the story makes the war very close and personal, and therefore very real to Marji, the teenager. But it is the possibilities a graphic novel grands, and the style in which it is executed, that conveyed the weight of this event that Marjane Satrapi still carries today to me as the reader.
Did Marji really see her friend’s bracelet, or was that detail a useful plot device? When Satrapi is asked if the narrative is 100% autobiographical she answers that a true story should depict the events precisely as they happened. According to Satrapi this is not possible, because it would not tell a story (Movieweb, 2010). We experience our own lives as an autobiography. We do not experience our own tales objectively, we do so subjectively. Therefore, them being told from one person’s perspective can feel very real to the reader, especially when the reader identifies with the main character. On the other hand we are taught that there are multiple sides to every tale. Telling a narrative from a single perspective will therefore always limit the information the reader gets. Assuming that an objective truth exists, an autobiography stands further from it than, for example, the documentary Stories we tell. In this film the main character’s story is told from many perspectives. All in all an autobiographical narrative might find itself further from ‘the truth’, but can feel all the more real to the reader.
This novel perfectly suggests that trauma is inherently qualitative and needs to be worked through in a qualitative manner, meaning that quantitative accounts striving for factual truthfulness and objectivity are simply impossible in some parts of human life and memory. The role of childhood memories, precision of memorizing events and a child being an apparent tabula rasa that has curiosity paired with political ignorance are strong themes of the novel and connect to the topic of opting for an understanding of what truth and fiction really are.
1.Why would the author have chosen to tell this story in graphic novel form?
2.What do you think about the artwork? What is the effect on the story that is told?
3.The author uses a lot of seemingly trivial comments, and situations in the panels. Why do you think this is?
4.Do you think that after reading this graphic novel you have a realistic/truthful perspective on the situation in Iran? Do the fictive elements of the graphic novel add anything to your understanding of the facts, or did they enhance your factual understanding of the political situation of Iran?
5.Why might Satrapi have chosen the name Persepolis?
- [Movieweb]. (2010, September, 19). Persepolis - Exclusive: Marjane Satrapi [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9onZpQix_w&t
- Chaney, M. [Darthmouth]. (2011, April ,11). TEDxDartmouth 2011- Michael Chaney: How to Read a Graphic Novel - March 6, 2011 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAyEbgSPi9w
- Linssen, D. (2016, June 16). Marjane Satrapi over PERSEPOLIS. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://filmkrant.nl/interview/marjane-satrapi-over-persepolis/
- Luebering, J. E. (2020, January 1). Marjane Satrapi | Iranian artist and writer. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marjane-Satrapi
- Satrapi, M. (2008). Persepolis : the story of a childhood and the story of a return. London: Vintage.
- Trickey, E. (2006). Marjane Satrapi Biography - life, family, childhood, children, parents, story, history, school, mother, young - Newsmakers Cumulation. Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2006-Ra-Z/Satrapi-Marjane...
- Vuylsteke, C. (2015, January 31). Marjane Satrapi: “Sancties maken krachten van verandering kapot.” Retrieved February 17, 2020, from https://www.mo.be/interview/ik-ben-optimistisch-over-de-toekomst-van-ira...