Marjane Strapi’s Persepolishas become a surprise addition to my yet-to-be-drafted ‘Best Books of 2017’ list. I’d seen it around various blogs a number of times but I can’t have paid that much attention because I couldn’t really remember what it was about, and it’s not like the cover really gives it away. When I saw it start to feature on a number of other people’s ‘Best Of…’ posts, however, I just couldn’t resist reserving it at the library. Whilst I wouldn’t exactly call it a festive read, I did end up absolutely loving it.
Plot summary: Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.
The Complete Persepolis comprises Satrapi’s two graphic novels – the first, The Story of a Childhood, follows Marjane as a child in 1980s Iran, and the second, The Story of a Return, detail her time in Vienna after her parents sent her away for her own safety and her subsequent return to her family.
I have to admit that I didn’t know a single thing about Iran before I opened Persepolis. I’m not sure I could confidently point to it on a map even now and I whilst I’d heard of the Islamic Revolution, I didn’t know that it referred to the instigation of a republic in Iran in 1979 by a group who later turned out to be profoundly strict and pro-Islam. There’s a page and a half of prose at the beginning of the graphic novel that sort-of explains it and Satrapi obviously deals with it a lot throughout the book, but I found this video really useful to help me understand. It’s a thirteen minute light ‘crash course’ into Iranian history taught by, weirdly, John Green. It turns out that Iranian history is actually really interesting and I’ve added a few non-fiction books onto my TBR so I can learn more.
Persepolis is non-fiction, but it’s not meant to be a historical examination. Instead it focuses on the human aspects – how the common people, particularly the more Westernised families like Marjane’s, were affected by the change in government and the change to stricter enforcement of the rules of Islam. It’s very surreal, watching the revolution through the eyes of a ten year old girl. She doesn’t understand why she should have to wear a veil and just wants to have imported bootleg posters of David Bowie from Turkey. It’s mostly quite light-hearted, which affects you all the more when something tragic happens. It’s very, very powerful without ever needing to use a sledgehammer to make a point.
I totally cried on a train, but that seems to be a theme for 2017.
I definitely found the first book, The Story of a Childhood, more immersive than the second book. It was new to me and different, and I was learning and exploring issues that I had never read about before. It was moving and just so interesting. The second book is slightly more mundane. Although Marjane does struggle with reconciling her war-torn past with her shiny future in Vienna, she appears much like any other person in their late teens. It deals with her friends, her relationship, her studies, etc, which was very honest, but not why I picked up the graphic novel in the first place. I also struggled to get on board with some of the choices she made. I didn’t dislike it, but the first part resonated with me whilst the second did not.
I do recommend reading both parts, however. I appreciate why the inclusion of the second was necessary to provide a comparison between Marjane’s life in Iran and her subsequent time in Vienna, and Persepolis is a memoir, after all, so it’s not like she could change what happened to her or her decisions. Ridiculous though they may be.
In short, I really, really recommend reading The Complete Persepolis and reading around the subject a little bit too. It’s a topic we’re never, ever taught in schools but it’s actually fascinating. John Green explains it well, which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. For a human and remarkably objective look at the Islamic Revolution of 1979, I really can’t praise Persepolis highly enough.
From Persepolis, I learned that:
- Iran was known as Persia until 1935. ‘Iran’ comes from the same route as ‘Aryan,’ as in ‘the Aryan race,’ which means ‘kingly.’
- There have been a number of revolutions in Iranian history, including in 1953. The CIA have openly admitted that they were heavily involved behind the scenes.
- This was actually one of the causes of the 1979 revolution, as some of the people resented the pro-Western influences, which led to the rise of pro-Islam traditionalism.