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A young heroine lifts her veil

Persepolis 2 The Story of a Return Marjane Satrapi Translated from the French by Anjali Singh Pantheon: 188 pp., $17.95

August 15, 2004|Laurel Maury | Laurel Maury is an editorial assistant for the New Yorker.

In "Persepolis," the graphic novel that appeared in France in 2000 and went on to be published in 12 other languages, Marjane Satrapi gave us a little girl in a school uniform talking to an all-purpose God and floating in mental space while her world was wrecked. From America to Europe, she was Iranian and one of us, whoever we were: a child of the '70s and early '80s with flipped-up hair, longing after the punk scene. Only in her world, hell arrived in the form of the Islamic Revolution.

"Persepolis 2" continues the memoir, but where "Persepolis" showed an intelligent, non-Western society falling apart, "Persepolis 2" focuses on East-West social tension. Marjane, a 14-year-old Iranian girl, is sent to 1980s Austria to live with a family, ends up in a boardinghouse, befriends punks, does drugs to fit in and lives on the street before returning, as a Westernized late teen, to fundamentalist Iran. Once home, she finds she is still one to talk back, even to Guardians of the Revolution, who might rape and shoot her.

The art, though less mature in "Persepolis," was more visceral. However, "Persepolis 2" has a better story. Satrapi has real comic timing, which she makes good use of in the teenage narrative. The book opens with Marjane riding in a car from the Austrian airport: "It's going to be cool to go to school without a veil, to not have to beat oneself every day for the war martyrs."

A Westernized friend, confused, responds: "This is my raspberry-scented pen, but I have strawberry and blackberry ones, too.... Do you want to put on some lipstick? I love pearly pink. It's very in!!!"

Marjane revels in being able to walk bareheaded and -- at last! -- find scented detergents. She hangs out with punk anarchists, who respect her only because she has "known death." Her hilarious encounters with Western philosophy (following Simone de Beauvoir's suggestion that women should urinate standing up) balance out the story of Austrian xenophobia (shouts of "Raus!," or "Out!," directed at foreigners). By the time one of the boardinghouse nuns says, "It's true what they say about Iranians. They have no education," and Marjane replies with a bit of teenage sass that all nuns are former prostitutes, humor has laid down a layer of softness that lets one see hard things: Our heroine has fled a horrible war to a country that barely realizes this war exists. Europeans don't always see Islamic foreigners as people. Hints of "David Copperfield" frame a twist that rings far too true. Those who persecute Marjane -- the nuns, her boyfriend's mother, her crazy landlady -- are women. It may have been Kurt Waldheim's male neo-Nazis who beat up non-Westerners, but women are the bearers of the culture that says this behavior is good.

Marjane's response to a world in which she is nothing is to go home. Age 19, she puts on her head scarf and boards a plane back to Tehran. There, she attends art school, marries and, out of misguided survivor's guilt, longs for the war in which her peers grew up and even lost limbs. But Marjane's downfall and saving grace are that she still can't keep her big mouth shut. The story ends with her leaving for France, forbidden by her parents -- out of love -- to return.

The "Persepolis" books place, like a screen, the vision of stylish Western anarchists over images of the Iranian secularists who failed to win the hearts and minds of their own world, then died at the hands of Islamist thugs. And the West didn't bother to look. Though punk nihilism was a fad, 1982 brings to mind Johnny Rotten, not thousands of secular Iranians dying. Even young Marjane had a punk rocker drawn on her wall. And perhaps the fault belongs with the West. The world over, Western cultural authority is deeply seductive. The West chooses its heroes and makes them the world's. We are wrong. There are heroes everywhere. Young Marjane can walk proud next to Allen Ginsberg or Janis Joplin -- and beat them at their own game. But her rebellion is not Western. Sexual freedom is not the point, nor is democracy. It's being able to walk and speak freely in the world. *

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