Marjane Satrapi grew on me slowly. The territory of her first two books is memoir, a genre for which I’ve expressed distrust before. In fact, I was convinced that critics poured accolades upon her more for her biography—Iranian who left home during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, feminist, exiled in France, female—than her art. The lack of physical detail and the child-like line left me cold; it was hard to tell one person apart from another. There’s almost no sense of architecture or of place in general. The episodic nature of the two-part Persepolis led me to believe that she couldn’t craft longer narratives, and the pacing and rhythm of her layouts were shaky.
Satrapi is, however, a strong writer. Her dialogue is curt and funny, and her voiceover narration intertwines well with her drawings. She’s well aware of her shortcomings as a person, and bravely puts them on display. By the end of Persepolis 2, her fragmented stories had accreted significance, and formed an affecting, singular narrative. Her extreme minimalism still grated at me, but I’d learned to notice how her small details—the mole on a woman’s cheek, the way she wears her veil, if she wears sunglasses or not—revealed important distinctions.
I didn’t finish Persepolis as a Satrapi fan, but I was intrigued.
Chicken with Plums, her first fictional work published in America, puts me closer to fandom. To say it’s fiction is slightly misleading, and it’s this thematic slipperiness that makes the comic sexy. In 1958, Satrapi’s uncle Nasser Ali died suddenly, after a mysterious illness. He was an acclaimed tar player (it’s like an extremely long-necked lute), much loved in Tehran and throughout the rest of Iran. When he died, he seemed to be in good health, and (Satrapi claims) nobody ever figured out how it happened.
That’s the comic’s starting point. Satrapi re-imagines the final eight days of his life—she has to; Satrapi wasn’t born until 1969. She posits that, instead of succumbing to illness, Nasser Ali took to his bed and simply decided to die. The “why?” and “how?” are the subject of Chicken with Plums. In order to answer both questions, Satrapi takes us through his life.
In 84 pages, she gives us an absorbing portrait of a troubled, acerbic genius. Like her previous work, she works in fragments—the comic begins (more or less) at the end, and is structured using each of the eight days as a chapter. Each chapter is itself disjointed, moving less chronologically through Nasser’s life and more thematically. An episode recount his courtship of a woman whose father won’t permit her to remarry a musician—this one haunts us, and returns periodically. Other episodes are more prosaic—his younger brother visits him, and tries to cheer him up with thoughts of Sophia Loren; his little sister visits him, but he’s too groggy to perceive her fully; his put-upon wife, who broke his tar during a ferocious argument and thus set his gradual suicide in motion, tries to make up by preparing his favorite dish: chicken with plums. One of the days is a conversation with Azrael, the Angel of Death—it’s drawn in the same matter-of-fact way as the rest of the comic, so it’s not clear whether or not Nasser is hallucinating.
Satrapi’s way of drawing has subtly changed for Chicken with Plums. Nasser Ali has gray hair and stubble, and his sharp attractiveness sets him apart from everyone else. When we see a woman in 1958 and twenty-five years earlier, Satrapi has given us enough details so that we know it’s the same person without having to be told. Some of the panels fill the page, alternating with postage stamp-sized frames. The book is more sensual than anything else by Satrapi—more accommodating of city skylines and mountainsides, of a woman’s curves and fragrant dishes (and, in one erotic and beautiful moment, the two merge). The story moves nimbly through past, present and future, fact and dream, as it would for a person reliving his life while lying in bed, waiting to die. The narrative slides by with Satrapi’s charming assurance. She’s always been sure of herself—her line is minimalist, but never wispy or shaky; her blacks are deep; she’s always used black-and-white contrasts boldly, and she never uses shading or hatchmarking of any kind.
This time, though, this assurance—which sometimes outstrips her actual artistic talent—is tempered by melancholy. Nasser Ali is, like Satrapi, a charmer. He’s almost aggressively sexy, even with Satrapi’s minimalist strokes. But he’s also a distant father, a negligent husband, and an arrogant S.O.B. He feels endlessly put-upon, which is partly true, but he doesn’t understand how much he drains the people around him. He’s capable of raw beauty and terrible cruelty. I loved him, but I’m not sure I’d want to spend much time around him. It’s engaging to spend time with him, but it’s exhausting, too.
His self-willed death initially seems like an act of pure, atrocious self-pity. By the end, I still thought it was self-absorbed, but I also understood the emotions behind Nasser’s choice. Unlike most suicides, we’re left with what amounts to an imagined, long, articulate, thoughtful note explaining it. I doubt, though, that most suicide notes are as mesmerizing as Chicken with Plums.