Marjane Satrapi: The lipstick rebellion

Growing up under a dictatorship, Iranian cartoonist Marjane Satrapi survived with the help of make-up and dancing. Natasha Walter meets her at home in Paris
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The magic of Marjane Satrapi's work is that it can condense a whole country's tragedy into one poignant, funny scene after another. "Everyone understands images," she tells me, explaining why she has chosen to tell the story of her childhood in Iran as a series of graphic novels. "With translation, there is always a distance, but images are instinctive. There is a sadness that works everywhere and a humour that works everywhere."

Anyone who thinks they don't like graphic novels, or who thinks they only like Art Spiegelman's graphic novels, should read Marjane Satrapi. The first instalment of her memoir, Persepolis, which dealt with her childhood in Iran, was published in the UK last year; the second instalment, Persepolis 2, has just been published here. The emotional impact of the new book is harsher than the first: while the original dealt with war, torture and assassination, it did so through the eyes of a child, who still had her own home and loving parents to rely upon. There was, though, a sense of the rupture in store for her. On the last page of the first book, Marjane is sent alone to Europe to keep her safe. Just before boarding the plane at Tehran airport, she turns for one last look at her parents. "It would have been better to just go," reads the bleak caption on a picture of Marjane peering through the glass screen at her mother, being carried off in a dead faint by her father.

The second book begins in 1984, with the 14-year-old Marjane alone in Austria. At first she lives with a friend of her mother's, who dumps her in a boarding house run by nuns; when the nuns chuck her out, she stays with a schoolfriend; when the schoolfriend moves away she stays in a communal apartment; and so on. Gradually the solitude and anomie of the Western city begin to tell on her, and Marjane goes spiralling down until she is dealing drugs and then sleeping, for two months, on the Viennese streets. It is a fine exploration of how quickly an immigrant life can unravel.

Satrapi sees her own terrible experience as exemplary of the experience of immigrants throughout Europe. "This is not just the problem of one country. It is the problem of the whole world!" she says fiercely. This part of her memoir was naturally hard for her parents to read; they are still living in Iran but come to Paris to see their daughter from time to time. "They didn't know anything about that until they read it. My mother started crying. She said: 'If only I had known.' I said, 'If you'd known, what? It would only have made things more complicated. Now is the right time for you to know'."

There is something abrasive about Satrapi, but in the best possible way: she is like a good scrub for the mind. I meet her in her Paris studio, a lovely, messy, down-at-heel room in the Place des Vosges where she works on her books, on posters, illustrations, and now the animated film that is being planned of Persepolis. She smokes non-stop as she speaks, and when I play back the tape her words are punctuated by the click-click of her lighter. Her face, with eyelids dusted with silver shadow and a pink silk band holding back her thick black hair, is vividly expressive, and she talks in exclamations and italics. "Me? Non!" she says abruptly when I ask her if she is still religious. "Never! Ever!" she almost shouts when I ask if she is ever bored.

After that first journey to Europe, Marjane returned to Iran for a few years, and tried to be a normal Iranian woman, attending college in her coat and headscarf and trousers, partying secretly at night with her friends, and marrying an Iranian man. This section brilliantly dissects the reality of life in a modern totalitarian state, where individuals keep rebellion alive not through political debate so much as through lipstick and dancing. "They looked like the heroines of American TV series," runs the caption over an image of Marjane meeting her childhood friends in Tehran, all of whom have blossomed into glossy, flirtatious butterflies.

"The problem is that, most of them, they are extremely schizophrenic. They have an image for outside and an image for inside and the images are so different," Satrapi explains. This retreat into personal rebellion makes Satrapi almost despair of any concerted resistance to the Iranian regime, but she also believes that it cannot go on indefinitely. "Even the Soviet Union, it lasted 70 years and then it was over. No dictatorship lasts for ever."

Satrapi's examination of the looking-glass world of Iranian society - which is reminiscent of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran - has transfixed many readers in the West. The fact that Satrapi goes on laughing at the absurdities and horrors of the system makes the whole book hugely readable; it is alive with feeling and observation. Take one typical moment, when Marjane is stopped on the street for running. "When you run your behind makes movements that are, how do you say, obscene," the police tell her. She bursts out in brave anger, "Well then don't look at my ass!" and they are so startled that they fail to arrest her. But there is another, bitter moment when she is so scared that she will be arrested for wearing make-up that she shops an innocent man to the police for harrassment.

The humour and intimacy of Satrapi's work is clearly doing something to dispel Western prejudice about Iranians. When she goes to America, Satrapi says that she tells her audiences: "The axis of evil that you hear about, it's me - 95 per cent of the people you are scared of are just like me." One man told her: "I'm not scared any more of the axis of evil. I never imagined that people coming from your country had a sense of humour."

But Satrapi does not see her role as that of Iranian dissident put here to make us feel good about the West. Although she made the decision finally to return to Europe in 1994, and although she delights in being able to live a free life here, she is still determined to be honest about what she dislikes about Europe and America. Her books have brought her fame in France, and she is using the platform to talk about the things that she cares about. "I am not interested in politics," she says bluntly, "but politics are interested in me - and you - and everyone." On 15 September 2001 she was invited on to French radio to discuss the terrorist attacks. America's loss of innocence was referred to, and Satrapi responded fiercely. "I said, where is it, this innocence of America, when they arrived in that country and exterminated the Indians, or where was it when they brought in the black slaves, or during modern imperialism, all these coups - if you tell me where American innocence was, I will tell you if they have lost it. And people said, oh, you cannot say this."

She is scathing not just about the actions of the American government, but about the tenor of life in the West, and what she sees as our society's excessive reliance on fear - the fear of immigrants, the fear of terrorism, the fear of growing old. "Everywhere they are telling you about security, but what keeps human beings alive is pleasure, not security," she says passionately. And she hates the Western woman's inability to make full use of her freedoms because of the beauty myth - the fear of getting old or getting fat. "This is the veil of the West," she says, bluntly.

She believes Western women make their own oppression, and so won't call herself a feminist in Paris. "If I was still in Iran I would be a feminist - I would cut the balls off the men with my own hand." But it feels as if she won't call herself a feminist here, not because she isn't wholly committed to women's equality, but simply becasue she is such an individualist : "The goal of my life is always to be marginal, to be on the margins, not to be part of any group," she says.

This desire to remain elusive makes her conversation superbly contradictory. Satrapi comes over both as incredibly confident and incredibly vulnerable. One moment she says, "Suffering makes you hard; in reality nothing kills me any more," and the next moment she is saying, "I am so unsure about life that when I am talking to you I don't know that this breath I am taking in I can take it out." Although she is married to a Swedish man - "I love him more than myself, and that is a lot," she says - she is not sure that she is happy enough to have a child, "Most of the time I am a complete misanthrope, I think it is better that we should just stop reproducing. I don't have enough faith in life."

This vein of bitter pessimism runs through her conversation, and sums up her stated attitude to life: "When I went back to Iran and saw my friends," she says, "I thought, we wanted to change life, but 10 years later it is life that has changed us." But despite all she has lived through, and all the anger and bitterness in her words, she has kept her passion for life marvellously alive, and it breathes through every page of her books.

'Persepolis 2: The story of a return', is published by Cape (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.99 (free p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897