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When the music's over

Chicken With Plums Marjane Satrapi Pantheon Books: 88 pp., $16.95

October 15, 2006|James Marcus | James Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut."

CARTOONISTS, like novelists, can be roughly divided into maximalists (who work by dogged addition) and minimalists (who work by delicate subtraction). Marjane Satrapi falls into the latter camp. Her inky little panels are marvels of simplicity, with a decorative twist derived in part from Persian miniatures, and many of her most memorable sequences are awash in basic black.

Yet it's amazing to see how much complexity and narrative cunning Satrapi crams into her seemingly artless images. In "Persepolis" (2003) and "Persepolis 2" (2004), she pulled off a formidable bit of binocular vision, merging her childhood with the tormented history of modern Iran. There was nothing didactic about these books. They were fresh, warm, often whimsical, even as the shadow of dour fundamentalism fell over the author's middle-class existence. Nor did she lower the bar in "Embroideries," published in 2005. Again, the topic was deadly serious -- sexual politics, in the Middle East and elsewhere -- but Satrapi approached it via a round robin of chatty (and catty) anecdotes.

Now comes "Chicken With Plums." This time the author has produced neither autobiography nor the saucy ensemble work of "Embroideries." Instead she has chosen a single story -- that of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a celebrated musician who renounced art and (eventually) life in 1958 -- and peered into its recesses. What she discovers is not quite a parable. Nasser is too particular, too neurotic, to function as an Iranian Everyman. His despair, however, is cut from a universal cloth and should be recognizable to readers who have never uttered a syllable of Farsi.

What sets Nasser Ali off is the destruction of his treasured tar, a lute-like instrument that has played a key role in Iran's musical culture since the 18th century. We see his search for a replacement, which culminates in the purchase of a Yahya -- the tar equivalent of a Stradivarius violin -- from a shady middleman. But even this priceless relic falls short. And Nasser Ali, seeing his last chance for happiness snatched away, gives up.

"Since no other tar could give him the pleasure of playing, Nasser Ali Khan decided to die," we read. "He lay down in his bed.... [And] eight days later, November 22, 1958, he was buried beside his mother in Shemiran's Zahirolodoleh Cemetary. All those who had known him were present on that day."

This, I should stress, is only the beginning of Satrapi's story. The bulk of "Chicken With Plums" notches the protagonist's descent into oblivion, with an abundance of flashbacks and digressive detours. On the third day, for example, we learn how Nasser Ali's tar was destroyed: During a vicious quarrel, his wife, Nahid, broke the instrument's neck over her knee, clearly treating it as a proxy for you-know-who. On the sixth day, he has an extended colloquy with Azrael, who resembles a jollier and more efficient Darth Vader. Noting his bad attitude, the angel of death chides him with a few lines from "The Rubaiyat," then scuttles out the door: "Well, I'll leave you. I have plenty of lives to take today."

It's the second day, however, that furnishes the key to the story. Having caught wind of the situation, Nasser Ali's brother Abdi drops by to cheer him up. Why don't they go to the new Sophia Loren movie? Nasser Ali shares his sibling's enthusiasm for Loren -- comparing Greta Garbo to the Italian starlet is, he concedes, "like comparing smoked herring to caviar" -- but declines to leave his deathbed. Once he's alone, however, he's suddenly consumed with hunger. Nasser Ali abandons himself to the paradisiacal image of his mother's specialty, chicken with plums. And then, right out of the steaming dish, materializes the buxom figure of Loren herself, expanding into a giant effigy of desire, between whose pneumatic breasts the astounded Nasser Ali can again drift off to sleep.

Rendered in prose, this scene might have registered as lazy surrealism -- call it steam-table Fellini. Here it's credible, amusing and tinged with sadness. In a few simple pictures, Satrapi puts her finger on what ails her great-uncle: the death of pleasure. He's hardly what you would call a hedonist to begin with. Yet once we lose our appetite for experience -- once we stop subscribing to that quintessential human credo: I want, therefore I am -- we might as well take a number and prepare for the end.

So reasons Nasser Ali, anyway. In life he's a petulant and miserable man; in death he regains his dignity. As for his soul, that's an open question. But it's worth pointing out that in a flashback, when his mother dies, the vapors emanating from her body are variously identified as lingering cigarette smoke (a last token of pleasure) or pure spirit (which would make that pleasure irrelevant).

"Chicken With Plums" is the most intricately laminated of Satrapi's tales: The author shuffles past, present and future like a card sharp. It pains me to note, then, that her visual style seems to be lagging behind her storytelling ingenuity. In "Embroideries," she adopted a bolder, brushier style and dispensed almost entirely with the traditional panel grid. (So that's what they mean by thinking outside the box.) In the new book, she reverts to the fussier draftsmanship of her initial efforts, and occasional frames seem to have been drawn on automatic pilot. A strange thing: Novelists often are scolded for using a broad brush. Yet I can't wait for Satrapi to pick up hers again. *

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