Persepolis 2:
The Story of a Return

by Marjane Satrapi
(Pantheon, 2004)

It's November 1984, and Marjane Satrapi, in the second of her autobiographical graphic novel series, is in Austria, having been sent there by her enlightened and loving parents to study and learn in a world far from the oppression of daily life of fundamentalist Islamic-run Iran. But all is not well, and pretty soon Satrapi falls through the cracks of an unfamiliar world. As she learns to her dismay, Thomas Wolfe was right: you really cannot go home again, because nothing ever stays the same.

Like the first volume in Satrapi's saga, Persepolis 2 is a realistic and honest view of one young girl's struggle toward womanhood and finding her place in life. It is a deeply personal story about coming to terms with herself and her country, and of finding a sort of middle road between identity and tradition that allows her to honor her heritage while being a free spirit. It features the same simple, stark, yet incredibly compelling artwork that seems to effortlessly convey emotions in ways words can never adequately express. As she delves further and further into who she is -- a journey every adolescent has to take, sooner or later -- she also provides portraits of Europe and the Middle East that are almost breathtaking in what they predict in terms of the tragedies that would eventually consume the Middle East (and had already been quietly doing so for decades prior to 9/11). Her insight is especially poignant in light of the fact that she as a woman is a second-class citizen in her own country, devalued in spite of her academic acumen.

It is a sign of a good story when, in an ever-darkening world, the tale only becomes more and more engaging and the heroine more heroic for standing up for her right to be free. It is a sign of a great story when the tale that's being told ends without a happy ending but with a sense of hope that defies the odds, and the heroine is even more of a hero simply for enduring the unendurable. It is empathy for the heroine, not her triumph over difficult circumstances, that is the heart and soul of Satrapi's story.

Satrapi, who came to live where life is supposed to be freer, instead finds herself caught up in a world where social mores are even more complicated than the theocratic regime of Iran. Having left Iran as she was literally leaving her childhood at the same time, coming to Austria at virtually the same time she comes into womanhood, she finds herself living in a world where nothing is familiar and yet even the simplest actions of daily life are caught up in a complicated political atmosphere. Women are no more valued for their intelligence in Austria, or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter, than they are in the oppressive atmosphere she left behind. She falls in and out of love and friendship with several people of differing emotional alliances as she turns from a model student into a drug addict, drug dealer and, eventually, a homeless college dropout.

Broke and broken, having almost died of pneumonia from living in the streets, she returns home to her parents in Iran and tries once again to fit into a way of life that offers comfort but not salvation, eventually realizing that she fits nowhere. She learns, painfully, that one can only escape for so long before the real world comes seeping back in. She marries but the marriage fails; she tries to fit into Iranian society, only to discover that her level of discomfort with the rules that govern the lives of women are impossible to bend to. Facing a life of boredom and oppression, living with a mate who cares for her but who cannot change, she eventually leaves her husband, a decent man but a spiritual mismatch, and decides to leave Iran again, having virtually no choice but to do so if she intends to stay sane.

While the story once again ends in medias rez (in the middle of things), Satrapi has come to one important conclusion: it does not matter whether one is an insider or an outsider. What matters, is that no one can continue being the underdog forever. Once again, at the end of the tale, she is leaving her family behind to try to find life in a new world. Having completed a sort of hero's journey through the underworld of her own psyche, she highlights what is beautiful and worth loving in Iran, from the breathtaking geography to the nobility of the people struggling to live a life of dignity in a world where wearing a veil the wrong way is cause for night in jail, and the braveness of the protesters, trying to reclaim -- or create -- the freer world they believe in. Her self-deprecating humor highlights the tension between criticizing Western-style consumerism and succumbing (with good reason) to its temptations. More wide ranging and sentimental where Persepolis was bittersweet and finely tuned, Persepolis 2 also asks, through the experiences of her family and friends, what is the role of Arab women in Arab society. How can that role be redefined, and what should it be? What are the effects of a woman's invisibility in Arab society? Satrapi's simple, but not simplistic, answer cuts to the heart of the political situation facing women in the Middle East: as is evidenced by her own brilliant work, creativity does not have a gender.

by Mary Harvey
17 March 2006

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