The Shadow of Persepolis
After the colossal success of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi will be forever burdened with the task of trying to escape the ubiquity of her own creation. Although Persepolis was nothing terribly special in its own right, its amusing and hitherto unmatched glimpse into Iranian adolescent life summoned — not entirely intentionally — the most ardent orientalistic impulses of the West. The whimsical attitude of Persepolis suggested that the Middle East might just be as magical as its mystery would indicate and the graphic novel was quickly adapted into college curriculums, summer reading lists, and eventually a film adaptation.
Chicken with Plums is Satrapi’s sixth book after the Persepolis series and was just rereleased to ride the success of her first graphic novel. One would imagine that the challenge to Satrapi would be to continue creating comics that inspire the same kind of enthusiasm as Persepolis. Before even opening Chicken with Plums it is apparent that the book will have to go beyond the cultural seduction of Persepolis if Satrapi’s career is to become anything other than a one-note veil dance.
The good news is that Chicken with Plums is a much better work than Persepolis. The story is a much simpler one and takes the form of a fable rather than a memoir. Chicken with Plums relates the story of Nasser Ali Khan, Satrapi’s relative, who resolves to let himself die after his annoyed wife breaks his prize tar, an Iranian stringed instrument. The novel is divided into the day by day account of Nasser Ali Khan’s death, as he lies bed-ridden, reflecting on the life that brought him to this dolorous end.
Much of the plot focuses on Nasser Ali Khan’s relationship with his wife, whom we find that he married under less than romantic circumstances. Through a mixed bag of flashbacks and aphorism, Chicken with Plums retains much of the magic of Persepolis but succeeds in doing so without shackling to any cultural curiosity. The story itself is enchanting, not its connection to a foreign country.
This achievement owes itself to limited reference to the historical goings on of Iran. Although the characters mention Mossadegh and the unrest following his overthrow, these details decorate rather than dominate. Chicken with Plums takes pains to craft an engaging tale that is somewhat culturally transcendental. Although the bildungsroman character of Persepolis should be common to most societies, it was this very universality that was played upon: “See how similar Iranian youths are to Western youths.” There is nothing jarring about the fact that Chicken with Plums’ story of heartbreak was set in the Middle East, and this geographic silence allows the book to stand on the merit of its own story telling.
However, what makes Chicken with Plums truly exceptional is the manner in which it surprises readers. Without resorting to any sensational elements such as plot twists, Chicken with Plums leads readers on a very human fog. The motives of the cast are unclear until the end of the novel and the story is just as much about the invisible reasons for our actions as it is about a heartbroken musician. The tension between apparent drive and actual drive is the dynamic on which Chicken with Plums is structured and allows for a very natural unfolding of events. To wit, Satrapi is phenomenological as ever, and it is this talent that earns her the distinction of one of the world’s most prominent graphic novelists.
The art retains the simple elegance of Satrapi but enjoys a few ornamental flourishes due to the mythical interludes. Satrapi continues to exploit the capacity of graphic novels to offer subtle insight into the motivations and feelings of her characters without telling the reader too much. The finale sequence of the book is intricately crafted in this absolutely breathtaking way.
However, the troubling thing about Chicken with Plums is that I find myself unable to talk about the comic without continual recourse to Persepolis. Does this suggest that Satrapi needs a sharp divorce from form to escape the eclipse of her celebrity? Perhaps, but as one reads Chicken with Plums, a story structured very differently than Persepolis, one realizes that what Satrapi has done is created a comic universe in which she may play with genre, plot, and theme, each book complementing the others.
In the end, it still remains to be seen whether the positive effects of this symbiotic literature will outweigh the more immediate impression that Persepolis simply overshadows the rest of Satrapi’s work.