Chicken With Plums

January 24, 2008

With the early, sudden success of her memoir Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi has found herself in a tough place. She spoke to the divide between the West and Iran, and so came dangerously close to becoming one of the few Voices of Iran out there. Yet speaking for her country would require broad generalizations, and Satrapi’s work seems much more concerned with the details of her own life. Her latest, Chicken with Plums, focuses on the very specific plight of her great-uncle. It is a far cry from the political journalism the marketing department might have preferred.

Following her uncle through the last days of his life, Satrapi looks at an artist’s plight as much as a family member’s. Her uncle Nasser Ali Khan had been one of the most famous virtuosos of the tar, a Persian stringed instrument. When the story opens, however, he’s lost his touch. Not just his touch, but his tar, which someone has broken. He tries a variety of new tars, and when none has the sound he’s looking for, he lies down to die. Eight days later, he does.

That’s the first sixteen pages. The rest of the book devotes a chapter to each of his last eight days. These chapters leap forward and backward in time, showing how he got here, and where his family will go after he’s gone. We discover the source of his artistic inspiration and its loss, as well as the context in which he’s working. While the book mostly unfolds in 1958, just a few years after the British and American governments had conspired to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister, the story stretches years into the past and future. It extends what at first appeared to be a rather straightforward story of artistic frustration across matters of love and failure, and how their echoes can color an entire family, usually for the worse. There’s a sense throughout of inevitability, of being soiled, even, because it seems from very early on that Nasser Ali Khan’s family can’t help him, or even themselves.

In fact, the extended family commands as much of Satrapi’s interest as her great-uncle. The first of his eight days, for example, quickly dispenses with suicide options—he’ll just wait for death—and then becomes a showcase for Farzaneh, his favorite daughter. Through a few telling anecdotes, their relationship becomes clear, as well as Nasser Ali’s lack of parenting skills. What’s more, Satrapi includes herself in the family web with a story of meeting Farzaneh as a mature woman, so strong-willed that she continued smoking after two heart attacks, only to invite her fatal third. At the chapter’s end, Satrapi brings us back to Farzaneh’s father. He tries his tar again, but soon enough the notes crack and he’s back to waiting for death.

The rest of the chapters follow suit, allowing Satrapi to examine her great-uncle’s family in full. Each chapter shows why a different family relationship is a dead end. It’s a simple enough structuring device, but it allows her to cover a lot of ground without seeming arbitrary. When “The Fourth Day” shows his foul relationship with his youngest son Mozaffar, Satrapi takes up Mozaffar’s life as her subject. By the time his situation plays out, the story returns to Nasser Ali in his bed, and his despair weighs that much heavier. Even the few bright spots—memories of his favorite dish, an afternoon at a Sophia Loren movie—have grown tainted. Likewise, the future offers no hope, as Satrapi traces the important threads well past Nasser Ali’s death. The family’s a prison if nothing else. By the time the eighth day arrives, it’s almost a relief, and a quite different experience than the first telling of his death, sixty-six pages earlier.

Satrapi uses her stark black and white cartooning to illustrate these complex emotions. Effective and direct, her artwork unfortunately doesn’t warrant the label deft, or even fluid. She has mentioned in interviews how fundamentalist restrictions on dress limited her development in figure drawing. Her characters still appear awkward and static. Her line, too, doesn’t have the same fluidity as many of her peers at L’Asso and elsewhere. In part, this gawkiness lends the work a charm, once resonant with the childhood themes of Persepolis. Now, though, the story of a grown man doesn’t benefit in the same way. Often enough the cute cartoon children seem intrusive: certainly Mozaffar’s adorable character design obscures his hideous brattiness. The drawing can, and does, work; she is a cartoonist, and exploits the strengths of the form. But it doesn’t always work, and at its worst, it needs redrawing. Because Satrapi’s project seems largely devoted to revealing difficult truths, whether about her nation or her family, the drawings can get by with a certain crudity as long as they communicate. Small panels work better than large. Comparing pages 15 and 18 makes a fine example. The former doesn’t belong near the latter, and Satrapi’s not quite to the point where she always draws like the latter. But she shows improvement from Persepolis, and the book as a whole has solid storytelling.

So that’s the book, but there’s also the world around it. Without reducing the complexity of recent Iranian history into soundbites, just let me note that Satrapi lives in interesting times. She’s a public Iranian in a Western nation, France specifically. In interviews, she portrays herself as a devoted secularist critical of fundamentalism in both George W. Bush and her homeland’s leadership. Nonetheless, she has clearly stated that she would side with Iran in any potential conflict. Despite the apparent didactic purpose of Persepolis, she has refused to speak for Iran, or to cash in on what I presume would be an open door to punditry for a young, articulate Iranian already in the public eye.

She’s in the public eye not because she made an excellent debut memoir-cum-graphic novel, but because she made one about Iran. Subsequent press coverage (and I’m only talking about coverage in the US, not France, where her work appears first) elevated her first book to “next Maus” status, putting it in the window at Barnes & Noble and on the bestseller list. Afterwards, no less a critic than Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the October 10, 2005 New Yorker that Persepolis is “the best first-person graphic novel to date.” That article, an overview of graphic novels, shows enough understanding of the form that I can’t imagine he would have so elevated her work had he ever caught wind of David B.’s Epileptic. Then again, had her work not been politically relevant, he may have overlooked it along with the work of Phoebe Gloeckner and Chester Brown, neither of whom write politically important stories, but both of whom outstrip Satrapi’s achievement in the comics memoir.

Not that I want to begrudge her success: I find her work exciting, and her latest book shows that she’s made the right choices in light of that success. With her two volumes of Persepolis, she fulfilled a didactic mission, and now she can develop in other ways. Given Chicken With Plums and Embroideries, she seems to be extending the first-person “I” of Persepolis to include her family. Whether a larger reading public, who discovered her through Entertainment Weekly or NPR, will stay on for the ride remains to be seen. After all, it’s no longer novel to find a comic book about Iran. If those readers don’t stick around, more’s the shame, as I suspect she may have a masterpiece in her. Persepolis, good as it is, was not it. Neither is Chicken With Plums, but its formal developments make it a lot closer to the one I think she’ll soon create.

This article first appeared in the October 2006 (no. 278) issue of The Comics Journal.

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