The transition from childhood to adolescence is bewildering at the best of times. For Marjane Satrapi the process was even more unsettling, because she came of age in 1980s Iran, as her country was mutating from the familiar world of her youth into a totalitarian theocracy. Persepolis is her self-portrait of the artist as a young girl, rendered in graceful black-and-white comics that apply a childlike sensibility to the bleak lowlights of recent Iranian history.
Satrapi is the only daughter of an elite, intellectual family; her great-grandfather was Iran’s last Qajar emperor, and her great-uncle helped establish the independent republic of Azerbaijan. At the start of Persepolis, her parents drive a Cadillac and spurn religious holidays. Yet 10-year-old Marji is torn between tradition and modernity, a conflict etched into the cover image of a girl split in two: One half sports perky, short hair, while the other is cloaked in a chador. At one point she convinces herself that she’s the last prophet—a fact she hides from her progressive parents. Like a Judy Blume character transplanted to the Middle East, Marji confides only in God, pictured here as a cuddly white blob with a beard who sits by her bedside and cradles her.
An impressionable creature, Marji is prone to great philosophical and emotional shifts. As the Islamic revolution takes hold of Iran, and its effects trickle down to the playground, she puts her prophetic aspirations aside to reimagine herself as a petite revolutionary. But she can just as easily picture herself as a tyrant. One day a family friend who has just been released from prison comes to visit and recounts grisly tales of his torture. This gives Marji fodder for her own imaginative games; she plays at persecuting her pals all afternoon. “Back at home that evening,” the caption reads, “I had the diabolical feeling of power.”
This is what Satrapi does best—she’s a scavenger of daily incident, spotting the tiny and not-so-tiny cracks in society during and after of the revolution. Overnight, her teachers switch from worshiping the shah to enforcing Islamic regulations, and neighbors suddenly become pious. “Last year she was wearing a miniskirt, showing off her beefy thighs to the whole neighborhood,” her mom says of the woman next door. “And now madame is wearing a chador.”
Marji is old enough to remember a less constricted way of life, and young enough that every dramatic experience can leave dark fingerprints on her psyche. Satrapi’s parents eventually ship her to Vienna at age 14—alone—to keep her out of danger. She now lives in France, where Persepolis was originally published in multiple volumes to great acclaim. It won numerous comic book awards, and critics compared it to Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Satrapi’s super-naive style is powerful; it persuasively communicates confusion and horror through the eyes of a precocious preteen. But Persepolis conveys neither the emotional depth of Maus nor the virtuosity of Joe Sacco’s journalistic comics. (The single-panel summations of Iranian history here reminded me of Michael Moore’s silly two-minute gloss on American history in Bowling for Columbine—cute, but lacking insight.) Satrapi keeps us at arm’s length, so that we never feel fully involved in this girl’s intellectual and moral transformation.
Azar Nafisi lived through the same era as Satrapi, and her superb memoir of the period offers a perfect counterpoint. Where Persepolis is childlike yet stark, Reading Lolita in Tehran is sophisticated and bursting with texture and sensuality. For two years before she fled to the U.S. in 1997, literature professor Nafisi conducted a weekly private class in her house, where a handful of her best female students would lay down their veils and discuss books.
These women are what Marji might have been had she stayed in Iran. Each of them glows on the page, illuminated by Nafisi’s affection. Underneath her robe, Azin is blond and outrageous. Mahsid’s an ardent Muslim, and Yassi nurses a rebellious spirit, though she’s too young to remember a time when women weren’t constantly surveilled and harassed, beaten and jailed for letting too much hair show or for acting “too Western.”
Nafisi presents her class as an oasis, where her girls seek a mixture of relief, pleasure, passion, and salvation in the imaginative worlds of Austen and Nabokov. In Lolita, they discover a story of “the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Humbert Humbert obliterates Lolita’s identity and remakes her into a figment of his imagination, much like the Islamic fundamentalists who control so many aspects of Nafisi’s life. Although Nafisi resists turning Lolita into an allegory—”We were not Lolita,” she insists, and “the Ayatollah was not Humbert”—she sees in the novel’s heroine a creature who obstinately maintains her humanity in the face of a dictator.
Nafisi picks through her memories delicately, but at every turn sensations surge through—in contrast to the perpetually restrained Persepolis. Reading Lolita goes some way to explaining Satrapi’s deep reticence when Nafisi describes her sense of detachment and helplessness during her years under the mullahs: “In Iran a strange distance informed our relation to these daily experiences of brutality and humiliation. There, we spoke as if the events did not belong to us; like schizophrenic patients, we tried to keep ourselves away from that other self, at once intimate and alien.”
For both Nafisi and Satrapi—one a well-respected professor, the other a pampered schoolgirl—government edicts ravage external and internal life. Marji wonders how she’ll ever become the next Marie Curie, while Nafisi’s whole sense of herself begins to unravel:
Now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional . . . as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.
Satrapi and Nafisi have chosen the perfect moment to write themselves back into being. As the U.S. gazes in the direction of their homeland like a bully contemplating its next target, these books add a crucial dimension to our vague and impersonal understanding of contemporary Iran.