Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon Books, 2006), $16.95.
Gadzooks! Every time you turn around these days there’s a new Marjane Satrape graphic novel for sale. The graphic novel translator’s league must be burning the midnight oil at HQ in the North Pole churning out translations of our favorite French cartoonists in English, Spanish, Italian and God knows what other exotic languages. I was confident that I would adore Chicken with Plums before I had even picked it up off the display in the comic book store, as I am an ardent fan of all Satrapi literature. I probably would have given the book five chapatis whether or not I liked it, just because I haven’t written reviews of her other books and they all deserve five hot buttery chapatis. I was not disappointed, however, as this novel is most excellent and should be read by one and all. Its only shortcoming is its length, which is short, affording the reader far too little time in the gracious ambience of Satrapi literature.
I will not speak of the plot of Chicken with Plums here, except to say that it is about Satrapi’s great uncle, who was a musician. I’ve noticed that all the reviews I’ve seen so far, as well as the dustjacket of the book itself, give away the entire plot and premise of the story, leaving the reader no surprises at all except for a few details here and there. It has been called an Arabian Nights tale and an autobiographical novella. The reviews have even gone so far as to catalogue all the narrative devices Satrapi has deployed in the book so that no one will be forced to strain his or her intelligence by identifying a particular kind of flashback or like device. But there’s a reason for all that spoilerocity. Graphic novels are very hard to understand without guidance. Some of the elements of storytelling that could be made simple and straightforward by means of written language have been obfuscated by the insertion of pen and ink line drawings. Illustrations are unnerving. They may seem simple, but we all know artists are tricky and who knows what they are telling us subliminally. For example they may be compelling us to go throw a homicide bomb at someone or to get up and get a large popcorn and soft drink beverage at the concession stand.
Granted, Satrapi herself reveals almost the entire plot within a few pages of the novel, but that revelation comes as a complete surprise if you have restrained yourself from reading the dustjacket. I felt a sense of shock when the primary punchline was revealed early on, something like walking down a path on a sunny day in anticipation of a long, happy hike ahead, and then suddenly realizing that the path is actually quite short and leads up to the edge of a cliff, and for the rest of the day you must walk along the edge of the cliff and accept the fact that the day will not turn out as pleasantly as you had expected. Now that’s storytelling!
I’ve noticed that many reviewers claim they enjoy Satrapi’s work because it is ‘universal.’ Some people like it because it is a ‘window into life in Iran during a time of political turmoil.’ I like her work because she tells very interesting stories and draws beautiful, sharp and extremely well designed panels. And all the while, she makes it look simple, unlike her mentor, the phenomenal David B., who makes it look really hard. I suspect both of these affects are an illusion that they have cultivated, but while david b.’s drawings make you feel like your eyes are going to pop out of their sockets and force you to put the book down periodically just so you can have a time out, Satrapi’s strips draw the viewer smoothly along with the narrative.
I’ve included two examples of her drawing with this review. One above, that shows her velvety narrative progressions (as well as her velvety use of line and solid shapes), and the one below, which is a single panel from the French version and mingles major character revelations with a remark on flatulence. I thought by including the French version, I would a) not be giving out spoilers to the readers who don’t know French, and b) demonstrating how sophisticated it sounds to talk about flatulence in the French language (if you are not French).
In Iran, if a man touches you, you have to hit him. If someone touches me up, I punch him in the mouth. It’s that simple. It happened to me in the M√©tro, when I first came to France in 1994. So I hit the guy. The whole carriage was gawping at me as though I was crazy. He started it. I’m not saying I’m a feminist. If a woman touched me, I’d hit her too.
Also, keep your eyes peeled for the animated version of Persepolis, narrated in French by the likes of (chain-smoking and ravishing) Catherine Deneuve. I’m reluctant to accept that it could be a good thing to make Persepolis into an animated feature, but it’s being directed by Marjane Satrapi herself, and not Disney or Pixar, so it won’t have voice-overs by Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy or Lindsay Lohan, one hopes.