As an autobiographical graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” is an interesting perspective of growing up as a girl and as a woman in Iran, focusing in particular on the 1979 Iranian Revolution and on the effects of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. I thought therefore the first part of the novel, in which she detailed the experiences of her family members and relatives – for example her uncle Anoosh, who was imprisoned as a communist revolutionary, and who was later executed after a brief stint out of prison – who had participated in different political activities. In fact Satrapi’s parents took part in the many demonstrations, even bringing her along in one instance, first against the Shah and subsequently against the theocratic republic.
And often with an element of humour Satrapi describes various Iranian customs and traditions, observations of living in a liberal household within a conservative society, as well as acts of defiance in the face of repression, and how she and her family had to navigate around the totalitarian regimes. In the process she also dispels misconceptions or even stereotypes others may have of Iran and its citizens. In an interview, Satrapi added that people outside of Iran do not necessarily see the realities, and so the novel – which is not meant to be political or sociological – offers a personal, humanistic glimpse into every-day life in the country.
“Persepolis” is meant to be a bildungsroman, eventually detailing her move to Austria and France in 1984 and 1994 respectively, yet the second part of the novel was a little slow-moving, somewhat draggy at points. To an extent the events Satrapi experienced abroad felt repetitive, maybe predictable at times, and almost routine compared to conflict-rife Iran.
Still as a whole, the novel highlighted important themes about conflicts, and more importantly the ramifications of these conflicts: disruptions to personal lives and relationships, changes in society and how transgressions were harshly dealt with, as well as imprisonment, torture, and execution of dissidents. Some musings may resonate beyond the Iranian context too:
“The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my make-up be seen? Are they going to whip me?
No longer asks herself: Where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech? My life, is it liveable? What’s going on in the political prisons?”
Even with the certainty that Satrapi does eventually make out of these circumstances unscathed, one inevitably tries to situate oneself in unstable Iran, a country where – in her words – nobody has a normal life. And it is overall, a moving read.