I just finished reading both volumes of Marjane Satrapi's impressive memoir, Persepolis: Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: Story of a Return. These graphic novels comprise a compelling account of the author's youth in war-shaken Tehran and in Austria, where she is sent by her parents to escape the carnage of the Iran-Iraq war.
Satrapi (according to her books) was the only child of affluent socialist intellectuals, a great-granddaughter of the first Shah, born in the twilight of the second Shah's reign. When the Islamic Revolution takes over the government of Iran, her cosmopolitan Lycee Francaise is coverted to a religious school; bilingual education is forbidden, boys and girls are separated, and Satrapi, along with all the other girls, dons the veil. This is just the first miliestone in a life marked by transformation and upheaval.
One of the recurrent themes in Satrapi's story is her continuous search for identity and purpose. The young Satrapi careens wildly from religious fervency to Marxist ideology, from obsession with the west to obsession with Persian history, from love to anger and back again. In Iran, she struggles against the Islamic regime while slowly developing the sophistication required to fully understand the political landscape. In Europe, she must cope with being an outsider among people who seem vapid to her, having never known violence or death or true abrogation of their freedom. Her story takes a horrifying turn in Europe as, in her struggle, Satrapi turns on herself. She must finally return to Tehran, to rebuild herself from the ground up, much as the city begins to rebuild itself after the war with Iraq.
Marjane Satrapi tells her fascinating story in a high contrast graphic style that appears deceptively simple. Despite being simple line drawings surrounded by large black shapes, her characters are intensely expressive. In one of the most moving sequences, the young Marjane comes home from shopping in downtown Tehran to find that the family next door has been killed when their house was leveled by an Iraqi scud. Although the drawings are stark and undetailed, the emotion is powerfully conveyed.
Reviews of the Persepolis series often draw the seemingly inevitable comparisons to Art Spiegelman's Maus books. To some degree, the comparison is superficial, based only on the common format of the books. If Maus and Persepolis had been traditional prose memoirs, I doubt that one would call to mind the other. But the common form does bring the subject matter somewhat closer together. Each takes intense and difficult subject matter and bring them to life visually, using artistic devices that disarm the reader by rendering the material deceptively simplistic. There are differences as well, however. Maus uses Vladek Spiegelman's Holocaust survival story to explore Vladek's relationship to his son and to the outside world; there is an undercurrent of armchair psychoanalysis in Maus, such that the story is as much about the enduring ripple effects of Vladek's experience as it is about the experience itself. By contrast, Satrapi gives the reader of Persepolis fewer glimpses into her present life, so while there is close psychoanalysis of the young Satrapi to be had, there is less of the broad scope of exploration offered by Maus, despite the frequent lessons in Persian cultural history that Satrapi offers.