"I was born with religion," Marjane Satrapi writes at the beginning of her amazing, heart-rending book, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Appearing with this statement of fact is a rough cartoon drawing of Satrapi as an infant in diapers, her eyes wide open and shining at the reader, her head radiating a halo of energy. She goes on, in successive panels of this comic strip become a novel: "At the age of six I was already sure I was the last prophet. . . because our maid did not eat with us, my father had a Cadillac and, above all, because my gradmother's knees always ached." In her child's vision of her future, Satrapi would cure those aching knees, bring justice to the world through a code of conduct based on ancient Zarathustrian principles. She has debates with God, as she struggles with questions of social and gender equality, and as she wonders about the ideas that are swirling all around her, within her family and in Iran, just as the Shah is about to fall in 1979, in what is often referred to as the Islamic Revolution.
Part of what Satrapi sets out to dispell is the notion that Iran is a country to be characterized by, as she puts it, "fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism." In her introduction she writes: "As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth." Her purpose, she continues, is to tell a story that isn't normally heard in the west. "I . . . don't want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom . . . who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten."
Among the lost are members of her own family, who like many other Iranians who held views that opposed those of the oppressive forces that took over the country after the collapse of the Shah's regime. And as a child, in a loving, outspoken, politically active family, she is privvy to the democratic dreams, and witnesses the tragic, repressive realities. Very little is sparred her during the years of growing up that she vividly records in these pages -- war, hunger, the deaths of loved ones, injustice, torture, and the sheer terror of a culture closing down into darkness. And yet there is also humor, tenderness, and playful, incandescent, transcendent imagination in Satrapi's words and pictures. It's rare that we ever see childhood represented with such depth and awareness -- which is to say, such truth. This is an unforgettable book about a child, her times, and her spirit -- brave and honest, harrowing and sublime.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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