Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Title:  Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Author:  Marjane Satrapi
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2004 (US translation). 160 pages.
ISBN:  037571457X / 978-0375714573

Book Source:  I read this book based on many recommendations.

Opening Sentence:  "This is me when I was 10 years old."

Favorite Quote:  "Don't forget who you are and where you come from."

Persepolis is a memoir of a childhood interrupted by revolution. The book begins in 1980, which is a time of war and revolution in Iran. Marjane Satrapi is 11 years old, and her family are politically active and wealthy - a dangerous combination in a time of revolution.

The book is written as if through the eyes of that eleven year old and not the perspective of an adult looking back. This perspective makes for interesting contrasts throughout the book. Marji's experiences go between those naturally of a young child - friends, arguments, words said without thinking of their impact, and a certain self-absorption - and those of a child unnaturally forced to grow up too soon - with knowledge of fear and of death.  For example, at one moment, she has a child's request for posters and music as a gift. At a different moment, she contemplates the use of an iron as a torture device. This lens of a child's innocence placed on these events makes the events of the revolution even more stark and disturbing.

This history is made darker by economic battles over oil, fundamentalism, and terrorism in the modern history of the country. Conflicts have torn apart the country and created a destructive vision of this civilization around the world. This unfortunately is the legacy of Marj's childhood.

Underlying this darkness, however, is another heritage of a centuries old civilization rich in culture and a history that reaches far into the past. The title of the book is itself a reference to Iran's history. Persepolis, literally translated to "city of Persians," was at one time the capital of the Persian empire. Archaeologists have dated the earliest ruins of Persepolis to 513 B.C., more than 2500 years ago. Today, the ruins of the city itself are a UNESCO designated World Heritage site. Treasures from this famed city are highlights in the collections of museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the British Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris.

This rich heritage is also the legacy of Marjane Satrapi's Iran. Unfortunately, this heritage, for me, is what is missing from this book. The book focuses on the events of the revolution and the violence, hypocrisy, and destruction it brings. Having read it, I have a greater understanding of that piece of Iran's history, but I don't feel that I learn much about the country's culture and its people. That is what I was expecting for even the introduction to the book states, "Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me."

Persepolis is the first memoir I have read that is also a graphic novel. Graphic novels are not a medium I read often. So, for me, the approach to telling the story is as unique as the story itself.  The black and white illustrations match the somber, dark events described. Some panels are black on white, and some are white of black. That combination and the use of the dark vs. light background on varying frames tells the story perhaps as much as the words do.

In the recent past and even today, the media captures and portrays an extremely negative image of this region. The book unfortunately feeds into that image rather than dispelling it with a picture of the people and culture that lie beyond the negativity. "I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists." So says the introduction. I completely agree and wish the book portrayed more of the nation and culture beyond the revolution.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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