Marjane Satrapi,
Chicken With Plums
(Pantheon, 2006)

The best-selling author of Embroideries and the Persepolis series, Marjane Satrapi, tells the tale of her great uncle, Nasser Ali Khan, a renowned Iranian musician. When his tar (a musical instrument and the gift of a teacher) is broken by his wife, he tries to replace it but can't find one to replicate the music. Heartbroken, he takes to his bed and prepares to die.

Which is not really a suicide, per se, but more of surrender, a letting go. The mood swings back and forth between love story and mystery, as the reasons for Nasser's painful choice are slowly made clear. What makes life worth living? What does it mean to love someone? Over the course of eight days, as Nasser's life draws to a close, he experiences visions that explore his past and the future he will never live to see. His life is both a backdrop for the changing identity of Iran itself, and a sort of morality tale about conflicted identity.

Though Nasser didn't seem to know who he himself was, Satrapi's engaging wit and evocative art beautifully capture him as the human and complex person that he was. Subtle and graceful in its exploration of what it means to experience true heartbreak, Chicken With Plums, while not exactly light-hearted, is certainly not as heavy as it might seem.

Although true, the story is related as a sort of "real" folk tale. Elements of the fantastic are woven into the story in a completely straightforward, almost deadpan sort of way. In Satrapi's vision there is no difference between the secular world and the world of spirit. Both exist side by side. This magical realism is a major undercurrent in all of her work, but is explored more fully in this novella format. Satrapi effortlessly interweaves the fantastic and the mundane in sharply etched scenes detailing everyday life in middle-class Iran, combined with visions and dreamlike events, as well as with materials derived from history, mysticism and folk tales. In recognition of the power of images, she also has celebrities -- this time Sofia Loren -- pop in and out of the fifth dimension or wherever she stores them in her creative workshop.

Good storytellers understand powerful myths, in whatever form they take. Satrapi has a pretty decent grasp of American culture and its iconic gods and goddesses. It's a highly effective combination that makes this novella as wonderful as her previous efforts.

The art progresses as cleanly as the story. Her simple-but-not-simplistic images put her craft entirely in service of her subject. Satrapi is one of the best graphic artists in her field, as far as creating stark, expressive artwork that smoothes the flow of narrative into one seamless unit.

The only real disappointment is its length. It is simply far too short. Just as soon as you are pulled into Nasser's life, the story comes gently to an end. This should have been one of a book full of tales. Perhaps it's not too much to hope that a project such as that will be a reality in the near future. As charmingly wistful as it is absorbing, Chicken With Plums is another good read in what's fast becoming a real library of classic stories.

review by
Mary Harvey

19 July 2008

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