God Looked Like Marx

The New York Times
By Fernanda Eberstadt

Marjane Satrapi's ''Persepolis'' is the latest and one of the most delectable examples of a booming postmodern genre: autobiography by comic book. All over the world, ambitious artist-writers have been discovering that the cartoons on which they were raised make the perfect medium for exploring consciousness, the ideal shortcut -- via irony and gallows humor -- from introspection to the grand historical sweep. It's no coincidence that one of the most provocative American takes on Sept. 11 has been Art Spiegelman's.

Like Spiegelman's ''Maus,'' Satrapi's book combines political history and memoir, portraying a country's 20th-century upheavals through the story of one family. Her protagonist is Marji, a tough, sassy little Iranian girl, bent on prying from her evasive elders if not truth, at least a credible explanation of the travails they are living through.

Marji, born like her author in 1969, grows up in a fashionably radical household in Tehran. Her father is an engineer; her feminist mother marches in demonstrations against the shah; Marji, an only child, attends French lycée. Satrapi is sly at exposing the hypocrisies of Iran's bourgeois left: when Marji's father discovers to his outrage that their maid is in love with the neighbors' son, he busts up the romance, intoning, ''In this country you must stay within your own social class.'' Marji sneaks into the weeping girl's bedroom to comfort her, reflecting, deadpan, ''We were not in the same social class but at least we were in the same bed.''

Marji finds her own solution, in religion, to the problem of social injustice. ''I wanted to be a prophet . . . because our maid did not eat with us. Because my father had a Cadillac. And, above all, because my grandmother's knees always ached.'' The book is full of bittersweet drawings of Marji's tête-à-têtes with God, who resembles Marx, ''though Marx's hair was a bit curlier.'' In upper-middle-class Tehran in 1976, piety is taken as a sign of mental imbalance: Marji's teacher summons her parents to discuss the child's worrying psychological state.

A few years later, of course, it's the prophets who are in power, and the lycée teachers who are being sent to Islamic re-education camp. Marji is 10 when the shah is overthrown, and she discovers that her great-grandfather was the last emperor of Persia. He was deposed by a low-ranking military officer named Reza, who, backed by the British, crowned himself shah. The emperor's son, Marji's grandfather, was briefly prime minister before being jailed as a Communist.

When the present-day shah is sent into exile, Marji's parents rejoice. Their Marxist friends and colleagues, freed from years in prison, come to the apartment for celebrations, at which they joke about their sessions with the shah's special torturers.

The nationwide jubilee is brief. Soon these same friends have been thrown back into jail or are murdered by the revolutionaries; Marji and her schoolmates take the veil and are taught self-flagellation instead of algebra. Those who can decamp for the West.

Once again, Marji finds herself a rebel, briefly detained by the Guardians of the Revolution for sporting black-market Nikes, in trouble at school for announcing in class that, contrary to the teacher's lies, there are a hundred times as many political prisoners under the revolution than there were under the shah. Once again, Marji notes, it's the poor who suffer: while Marji attends a ''punk'' party for which her mother has knitted her a sweater full of holes, peasant boys her age, armed with plastic keys promising them entry to paradise if they are killed, are being sent into battle in Iraqi minefields .

It is the war with Iraq that is this book's climax and turning point. Satrapi is adept at conveying the numbing cynicism induced by living in a city under siege both from Iraqi bombs and from a homegrown regime that uses the war as pretext to exterminate ''the enemy within.''

When ballistic missiles destroy the house next to Marji's, killing a childhood friend and her family, Marji's parents decide to send her abroad. The book ends with a 14-year-old Marji, palms pressed against the airport's dividing glass, her chador-framed face a mask of horror, looking back at her fainting mother and grieving father. ''It would have been better to just go,'' her older self concludes.

Contemporary American cartoonists tend often to operate in a twilight zone of ironically diminished expectations -- Ben Katchor's Lower East Side automats, Daniel Clowes's hospital examining room. ''Persepolis,'' by contrast, dances with drama and insouciant wit.

Satrapi's drawing style is bold and vivid. She paints a thick inky black-on-white, in a faux-naïf pastiche of East and West. ''Persepolis'' deploys all the paranoid Expressionism latent in the comic strip's juxtapositions of scale -- the child dwarfed by looming parents, would-be rescuers dwarfed by giant policemen guarding the locked doors to a movie theater that's been set on fire -- but when Satrapi depicts a schoolyard brawl, it's straight from Persian miniature.

''Persepolis'' was first published to enormous success in Satrapi's adopted France, where adult comic books are a long-favored form. The English edition comes with an introduction expressing the author's desire to show Americans that Iran is not only a country of fanatics and terrorists. The book could hardly have come at a better moment.

Iran, after all, is not the only Muslim country with an urban Westernized elite that's been decimated by dictatorship and pauperized by decades of war. It's not hard to imagine a cartoon ''Babylon'' whose war-scarred author might not be so diplomatic as Satrapi in pointing out how her own country's now-toppled Frankenstein was constructed from parts made in the West and sold by its current ''liberators.''

Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood