Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi
(Pantheon, 2000)

Coming-of-age-in-wartime stories are not uncommon; stories told from a girl's point of view are less common, and stories told with dignity and grace are even more rare. Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical story is among the rarest, being an especially poignant tale about life in a world that literally lives behind a veil. That Satrapi tells her tale well is wonderful; that she does so in the form of a graphic novel that has won wide literary acclaim in a publishing world where graphic novels are not treated seriously is an even greater accomplishment. Add to that her interesting artistic breakthroughs and you have a classic along the lines of Maus and Jimmy Corrigan, graphic novels that took both the art of storytelling and the art of the story to new levels.

Life in a world where women are third-class citizens who are not expected to speak freely is a life full of harsh beauty, with stolen pleasures and the thrill of clandestine revolutionary meetings providing the only way of escape from the confines of a totalitarian regime bent on forcing all its citizens to conform to one moral standard. Nine-year-old Marjane, who happens to be a descendant of the last emperor of Iran, watches as the last remnants of the Shah's corrupt and crumbling regime fall apart under the force of the Islamic Revolution. At first Marjane and her incredibly enlightened parents, who raised her with freedoms most Islamic girls never know, welcome the changes brought by revolution. Relief quickly turns to disappointment as the new regime is worse than the previous in its totalitarian views.

Satrapi shows us a world where diversity thrives in secret and abundance is truly a state of mind. No matter how horrible life can be the need to express oneself freely, even at the cost of life and limb, remains the strongest human desire. It is that very human need that is at the forefront of any resistance movement, and Satrapi's parents try to instill in their daughter a belief that she can be all she can even in a world that doesn't value women.

As Marjane grows into an uneasy womanhood in an increasingly restricted world, where educated women are persecuted and wearing buttons of pop culture icons like Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson can land you in prison, and where members of her own family are executed for speaking out against the regime, it soon becomes clear to Marjane's loving and supportive parents that the only life of freedom for their daughter lies outside the insanity that daily consumes Iran. They make a very difficult decision that would be a heartbreaking metaphor for the sacrifices people make in the name of a better future, if it weren't already a heartbreaking reality in countries where getting through the day is like navigating a minefield.

The story doesn't really end so much as break off in the middle of a flowing narrative that continues in Satrapi's second book, Persepolis: The Story of a Return, but hope is in every line of the last image Satrapi leaves with her readers. It is a searing testament to the true heroes of war: the ones who sacrifice in the name of belief in a better world.

by Mary Harvey
17 December 2005

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