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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2003

A woman's revolution


PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD. By Marjane Satrapi. Pantheon Books. 153 pages. $17.95.

Daily headlines report the latest turmoil in the Middle East, reducing vast complexities to a bland shorthand we all know without understanding: A faltering peace process, an economic embargo, a military no-fly zone, weapons of mass destruction, a war on terrorism, an axis of evil. On Sundays, we read the analysis of the week's news to learn a little more, and come away with a set of facts that help intellectually to understand the situation of the moment.

But rarely, if ever, do we have an opportunity to taste it in the air, to smell it on our skin, and to feel it in our guts. The new graphic novel (a comic book grown up), Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi, feeds both the intellect and the psyche.

Persepolis chronicles the events of the young life of Ms. Satrapi, an Iranian illustrator and children's book author who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the Islamic Revolution. The book traces Ms. Satrapi's growth from a precocious girl into an intelligent, rebellious teenager who naively rails against the social confines of the fundamentalist regime, eventually leading her parents to send her to school in Vienna for her own safety.

Although this is a memoir, it's an extremely effective historical text as well. It provides a simple, concise portrait of the era and manages to parse out a political analysis of the situation that is both useful to the plot and interesting in a broader context. Persepolis, like so many other historical memoirs and novels, provides a strong argument for teachers to augment their lesson plans with more than just dry history textbooks.

Persepolis follows in the tradition of Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that chronicled his father's experience as a Holocaust survivor. Like Maus, the simplicity required by the format of the book strips the story of Persepolis to its core humanity. The spare and boldly beautiful illustrations draw readers in for a wallop of a sucker-punch that leaves you feeling winded, yet better off for it.

And as an American, Persepolis should make you feel a little queasy, particularly given the news of recent weeks. The stories of mass graves found in Iraq containing victims of dictatorial tyranny eerily echo the stories of disappeared family, friends, and acquaintances in Ms. Satrapi's life during the Islamic Revolution. Furthermore, Ms. Satrapi recounts what it was to be an Iranian living on the other side of Iraq's aggression, which at that time was well-supported by the United States.

However, Ms. Satrapi, who now lives in Paris, is not bitter or seeking revenge. She is merely setting out in a compelling fashion the facts of her life as they existed.

Toward the end of the book, Ms. Satrapi's grandmother tells her, “In life you'll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it's because they're stupid. That will help keep you from reacting to their cruelty. Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance. . . Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

We're lucky that Ms. Satrapi followed her grandmother's words.

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