Marjane Satrapi: Princess of darkness

Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian exile and a former punk and drug dealer. She's also becoming the world's most important graphic novelist, whose blackly comic autobiographical work is changing our view of everyday life in Iran. Portrait by Charles Burns

I hate that man more than any other human being on Earth. If there is one creature on the planet that I detest, it's that asshole. He is despicable. I loathe him. Because he's nothing but a shit, a fucking asshole."

Marjane Satrapi's thoughts have turned to our Prime Minister.

"A Labour politician?" she goes on. "My arse. George Bush is a buffoon, manipulated by people much smarter than he is. I can forgive Bush because he is a bloody idiot. But Blair isn't stupid. And with the intelligence he clearly has, to have legitimised this warmongering is unforgivable."

Satrapi rarely gives interviews, but when she does, diffidence tends not to be a problem. Entering the office, in the Paris studio owned by the woman one French observer called "a true princess", the first thing you see is a poster which reads: "Fuck You." She has the flu, she tells me, as she lights the first of a seemingly endless chain of Winston cigarettes, and so may not be able to express herself with her usual vigour.

The Iranian artist, widely recognised as the most significant new talent in the world of the graphic novel, is at that most exhilarating stage of a career: still unknown to many, even in France, but on the verge of major international fame. Her masterpiece, Persepolis - an autobiographical work, in her trademark monochrome style, which deals with her childhood in Tehran - is in the process of being made into an animated film, here, at her own production company. In the US version, the voice of her mother will be provided by Gena Rowlands; in the French, by Catherine Deneuve.

A couple of years ago, when Deneuve was asked to choose her favourite author, she replied, "Marjane Satrapi. I adore her work. In person," she added, "she is breathtaking."

It would be hard to argue with that last adjective. Satrapi is engaging, sharp, and - for all her expletives - welcoming, even if she does address me throughout with the formal pronoun, vous. I think she enjoys the distance it gives. While not exactly bashful in general conversation, Satrapi is not quite so forthcoming on her own past. There are times, over the next couple of hours, when she reminds me of what southern Spaniards say about the Basques, namely that they are so secretive that, when you meet them in a lift, they won't tell you if they're going up or down.

It's difficult to imagine her suffering fools - or, in a certain mood, anyone else - gladly.

"Iranian women are a hundred times stronger than the women I see here," she says. "Parisian women spend their whole time sobbing. 'Oh'" she adopts a plaintive tone, "'I am so strong - or do I mean weak - anyhow, have you noticed how my stomach isn't quite so flat as it used to be - and do you think I'm as attractive as I could be?' You've seen them whingeing. People call me strong; you should meet the women in Iran."

Satrapi, 36, is not what you'd call an exponent of fine art: her minimalist black-and-white style is unmistakable for its highly expressive simplicity, which perfectly complements the understated wit of her dialogue.

At one point in Persepolis, published in English in 2003, the six-year-old Marjane, who has ambitions to become a prophet, is visited by God. She begs him for some insight into the future of the world.

"Tomorrow will be fine," the bearded figure replies, "with average temperatures of 75 degrees in the shade."

In the main Parisian branch of the Fnac, the French megastore, there is a large display-stand of books on Iran: an indication of growing curiosity in the nation, as the inhabitants of Tehran, for their part, wonder if they will be the next to reap the benefits of an Anglo-American war of liberation. Satrapi's apparently naive autobiography manages to convey more about life in Iran, and the experience of exile, than any of these sociological studies. What she has done with the graphic novel bears comparison with what Bob Dylan achieved when he first addressed civil-rights issues in folk music - that is, to attract a mainstream audience (worldwide sales now exceed one million) to a subject many cared little about, in a genre they had no affection for.

Satrapi was born at Rasht, near the Caspian Sea, and grew up in Tehran, where her father was an engineer and her mother a dress designer. She was the only child in a secular and (omega) nonconformist family, many of whose relatives had died violent deaths. It was from her father, she says, that she inherited the side of her character that might be termed, to use her own phrase, "Hitleresque."

"I could have been called Nazi. It's a girl's name in Iran. It means grace."

Her father drove a Cadillac and she attended Tehran's prestigious Lycée Français. Persepolis describes the gradual erosion of a happy childhood. As an infant, Marjane marched against the Shah; in January 1979, she and her fellow protestors were rewarded with the oppressive regime of the Ayatollahs, who had people flogged for owning a chess set. The family's suffering intensified in September 1980, with the war of attrition unleashed on the country by Saddam Hussein.

"The Iraqis have always been our enemies," she writes, in Persepolis. "They want to invade us. That would be bad enough, but their driving is atrocious."

She was 13 when a neighbour's house was bombed, and she saw a schoolfriend's bracelet in the rubble, still attached to what she describes as "something". The following year her parents, who still live in Iran, sent her to school in Vienna, alone. Her suitcase contained a jar of local soil.

"Had you seen people die, as a girl?"

"Yes. That's all I will say."

"And in Austria, you were expelled from one school for striking your head teacher?"

"I was. I have problems with authority. I wasn't made to take orders. My grandmother used to tell me: 'Laws are for idiots.' She was right."

Though she passed her baccalaureate in Vienna, Satrapi drifted into a marginal society where she was dealing drugs, and sharing a squat with eight male homosexuals.

"If only my parents had known that their daughter was made up like a punk," she writes in Persepolis, "that she smoked joints and had seen men in underpants - while they were being bombed, every day."

"You wrote that you were 'tripping every weekend' - what on?"

"I won't talk about that. The only drug I use now is nicotine."

"But your experience in Austria destroyed your self-esteem?"

"It did," replies Satrapi, whose maternal grandfather was the son of Nasser-al-Din Shah, Persian Emperor from 1848 to 1896. "I'd been cosseted like a princess at home. In Vienna I was treated like dirt. Today I don't give a shit about that because I realise that every racist is a cretin."

"And eventually you attempted suicide, as you describe in Persepolis, by cutting your wrists and taking an overdose. What brought you to that?"

"Despair. I won't go any further. That's personal."

[At which point, likeable as Satrapi is, I can't help recalling the words of one of Alan Partridge's interviewees who says, when she's invited to discuss her alcoholism: "It's a very private matter - I have recently published a book about it."]

"But," she continues, "I do accept death as an option. I am not in denial. I know that I will die, just like a worm."

"A worm?"

"Well, a worm and I," she adds, with no sign of irony, "are obviously two different things. But I'm aware that I will die for the same physiological reasons as a cat, or a rat, or a worm."

At the age of 18, having split up with her Austrian boyfriend, Satrapi decided to complete her education at the Graphic Institute in Tehran. It's hard to imagine this fiercely independent artist returning to one of the most authoritarian regimes on Earth, where women have been forced to wear the veil since 1980.

"It's true that, in Iran, women have half of the rights men do. And yet 66 per cent of students are women. My mother always told me I had to do 100 times better than a man. I had to work hard at maths, and learn four languages." (She speaks Persian, German, French and English.)

Satrapi has spent 19 years in Iran. What makes her such a compelling and perceptive witness on her homeland is that, as an exile, she falls into neither of the usual camps: wealthy reactionaries nostalgic for the Shah ("that bastard"), nor apologists for the Ayatollahs.

"There's this misconception in the West that every Iranian is scum, that all men force women into marriages, then beat them, and that everybody is a fanatic. It's like arguing that Western society is typified by the Inquisition."

"I remember you saying that, in any nation, 8 per cent of the population are prats. From an English perspective, that sounds rather a conservative..."

"I believe I said 15 per cent," says Satrapi, not cracking a smile. "In France, 15 per cent vote for Le Pen. You have roughly 15 per cent in Iran who believe in extreme violence. The prat is international. The prat is everywhere."

She writes, she says, "because I want to show that I'm a human being, like my fellow Iranians. And that this current situation that you, in the West, find so awkward, is a hundred million times harder for most Iranians, because we are the ones suffering the direct consequences."

"Aren't there still Jewish delegates in the Iranian parliament?"

"There are. We have the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East, after Israel. People forget that." And not every woman in Iran, she adds, is "a hysterical crow. My mother had an aunt who never married, who just had affairs. Her attitude was basically: I will do what the hell I like, when I like, and if you don't like it, then fuck you."

"I know that you encountered some harassment when you went back home in 1988..."

"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 Métro, 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."

Back in Iran, Satrapi had a brief and unhappy marriage to a fellow student named Reza. She left the country for the second time aged 24, alone again, and completed another art degree in Strasbourg. Satrapi arrived in Paris with little interest in graphic novels; a friend introduced her to members of "The Association", a now-legendary comic-book workshop. She's said in the past that she was encouraged by an eminent member of this group, Pierre-Francois Beauchard, whose graphic novels appear under the name of David B. His books, though more intricate in style, are also in black and white and, like Satrapi's, preoccupied with family trauma.

"You once said that David B drew like a god, whereas you were less gifted."

"Yeah," she says, with only the hint of a smile. "Well I've (omega) changed a bit since then. I have my own style. I've learnt to communicate emotion using very little detail."

Simplicity, she insists, is a virtue.

"Like for this film of Persepolis. We don't have $300m. We have $3m. You can spend $300m and produce a crock of shit like Titanic. Truffaut made wonderful films with small budgets. It's the same with graphic novels. You get artists who are basically showing off: 'Just look how I've drawn this arm - you can actually see the veins! Marvel at my virtuosity.' That's not me.

"In my studio," she continues, "we are not dilettantes whose motto is: I created it therefore it is great. Nor am I one of these wannabe artists who don't graft, and turn out absolute crap. Like the Venice Biennale last year - what a load of shite. My arse produces more interesting work than that. No ideas, no technique. Here, we work, and we work, and we work. Our film will be out next year. I believe it will be outstanding."

She now lives with her second husband, in a fashionable district of Paris.

"He's a Westerner," she volunteers, in an uncharacteristic moment of candour.

"He's from Sweden, isn't he?"

"He is."

"What's his name?"

"I'm not saying."

"Is he an artist?"

"That's private."

"I won't ask his shoe size."

"I won't tell you."

"Joseph Heller once said that he'd succeeded 'despite that great handicap for a novelist, a happy childhood'."

"Well, I would have much preferred to have had a normal childhood. I would have loved it if my greatest dilemma, at 14, was whether to go to Benetton for my pullovers. I would have preferred not to have cried all the tears I have cried."

"Even if it meant not writing?"

"Definitely. Because I would have been happy. But when you're dropped in a pile of shit, so to speak, you have to decide - either add to the pile, or use it as fertiliser, and grow flowers."

The latest bloom to spring from Satrapi's ample reserve of manure - her family's experience of exile, torture and execution by firing squad goes back many generations - is a graphic novel called Chicken With Plums. It's the story of the last week in the life of her great uncle, Nasser Ali Khan, a famous player of the tar [a long-necked lute] who is so devastated when his instrument is broken that he takes to his bed to die - which he does, eight days later.

It's a deeply affecting piece of work and, like Persepolis, a tour de force. I read it three times at one sitting - even though, as I explain to Satrapi, you wouldn't want to be the person who had to pitch this plot in Hollywood.

"Well, you're right," she says. "I called it Chicken With Plums because that's his favourite dish - he dies at the moment when it's lost its taste for him."

"Death isn't exactly a rare theme in your books."

"I think a lot about my own death. I had a relative who was the only survivor in a plane crash. Six months later, a bicycle hit him, and he died. This guy had fallen 20,000 feet and lived. I think there's a time when you're supposed to die."

Though Satrapi insists she's not religious, she does say that "I am aware that there is the visible world, and another, parallel world. I know that, when I concentrate, there are things I want, that happen. I dream of things, and they happen."

"For instance?"

"Once I warned my father against making a journey by road. I'd dreamt of him in a car crash. He said: 'It's OK, I'm taking the plane.' The flight was cancelled; he left in a Land Rover. It came down a cliff. He had all the skin stripped off his back. It was horrendous. That kind of thing. These dreams come to me all the time. I'm not saying I believe that means there is a heaven and I'm going there. I will die like a miserable worm, and rot down to compost. But I also know there are powers we can't yet measure."

Her ideas about people dying only when their number is up, she says, "may explain some aspects of my behaviour".

"Like the smoking."

"Right. Every cigarette I smoke is a joy. As soon as I light a cigarette, I'm happy."

I don't think I've ever met so enthusiastic a smoker. Talking about Catherine Deneuve, Satrapi says: "She has every quality I like in people: she's funny, she's intelligent... she smokes."

"I get the feeling that, for you, cigarettes represent some kind of revolt. Why do you think some people hate them so much?"

"I believe that's a sexual thing." She raises a lighted Winston to her lips and inhales. "I put it in my mouth. The smoke enters my body, through an orifice. It gives me pleasure. And it leaves..." She exhales. "By the same orifice. I think it reminds them of... something."

Recently, on a street in Los Angeles, she saw a woman glaring at her cigarette. "There were traffic fumes everywhere. I saw her staring, so I muttered: 'Fuck you.' She came over and said, 'Did you say something?' I said, 'Yes - fuck you.' She replied: 'But I am so sensitive to cigarette smoke.' I told her, 'OK - be sensitive - and die. Or give me a break.'"

The way her career is progressing, I suggest, she may have to get used to Californian attitudes to tobacco. "My life has been a drift towards the West," she says. "Tehran, Vienna, Strasbourg, Paris. I guess I could wind up in Los Angeles."

Satrapi hasn't been to Tehran since Persepolis, she says, though her parents visit her, and she's had no threats from the Iranian regime. Still, I get the sense that her protective attitude to divulging certain details of her life might derive from a determination not to get herself into a Salman Rushdie situation.

"Do you feel that you can't go back to Iran?"

"I'm not sure it's a case of 'can't'. But let's say I was told: 'Come back and we'll execute you.' Some might see that as a duty - to die for your principles. But if dying for your principles worked, the world would already be a paradise, given the millions who've perished for ideology. I'm happy to die for my principles - but very, very slowly."

"You once mentioned that your mother is always saying: 'Oh no - when will the next war start?' Last week's cover story in Time magazine poses virtually the same question with regard to Iran. Do you think they should have nuclear weapons?"

"You have to remember," she replies, "that the President [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the main source of bellicose statements relating to Israel] doesn't exercise the real power in Iran. Above him, you have the Council of Guardians, and above them the Supreme Leader. And don't forget that Iran was attacked for eight years, with the US supporting Saddam Hussein. And that in 1953 the English and the Americans extinguished national democracy in my country, though a coup d'état." (This was the so-called "Operation Ajax", conceived by the British and executed by the CIA, which aimed - successfully - to appropriate Iranian oil revenue.)

She pauses.

"Of course this regime shouldn't have nuclear weapons. But George Bush - this madman who has invaded Iraq and made the region a hundred times more dangerous than it was before - should he have the bomb?"

I remind Satrapi that she has compared herself to an earthworm on two occasions during this conversation - which is far more frequently than the modest invertebrate usually surfaces when you're talking to successful people in the film business, even if she uses it as a device to emphasise human intelligence.

"And yet any intelligence, as is often said, is worthless unless it's modified by an experience of life. What have you learned?"

"Two things. First that, for years, people in authority have been peddling the illusion of 'civilisation'. The definition of a civilised society is that it is not starving. Take Paris, cut off its electricity and water, and empty the supermarkets. In three days people will be murdering each other and eating the corpses. The notion of civilisation is the biggest confidence trick in the world. That's the first thing."

"And the second?"

"That the struggle to preserve human life on Earth is already a lost cause. The world is in such a state that I don't believe it will recover. Ever since the American attack on Iraq I've been asking myself, 'My God, what are they going to do next? Am I going to die of natural causes, or in World War Three?' Every element required to ignite that conflict is in place now. And that war will end all human life."

With imminent oblivion in mind, Satrapi decides she might as well light another Winston.

"But that will be a blessing, because I believe the planet will be better off without us. With a few cats and rats, I think the world will be a much happier place. With the cats and the rats," she repeats, "and the worms."

'Chicken With Plums' is published by Jonathan Cape on 12 October, priced £12.99. Marjane Satrapi will discuss her work at the ICA in London on 24 November at 4pm ( www.ica.org.uk)

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