Marjane Satrapi gusts into the room like a hurricane. She is a tiny woman propped up on huge white platform heels. She is dressed in black and is beautiful in a cubist way —- Picasso could have sculpted her.
Her hair is black, her mouth is a gash of red lipstick, she is talking 20 to the dozen, and smoke seems to be pouring out of every visible orifice. Everything about her is cartoon-like. Which is appropriate because she is best known as a cartoon character in her own comic books.
Persepolis is her autobiographical graphic novel recounting her childhood in Iran, the overthrow of the Shah, the terror of the Khomeini years, the war with Iraq, the refuge she sought in Europe and her painful path to adulthood. Persepolis (the Greek name of the ancient Persian capital) is desperately moving and extremely funny. Young Marjane is a stroppy, piss-taking, veil-wearing Marxist-anarchist who embraces her many contradictions with self-absorbed relish.
Now she has turned the book into an equally brilliant animated film, co-directed with fellow comic-book writer Vincent Paronnaud. The movie is as stark and simple as her own drawings (her family could be an Iranian Simpsons, only real), with the added bonus of an expressionist feel that recalls the films of Fritz Lang.
Persepolis has been dismissed by the Iranian authorities as Islamophobic, but Satrapi says this is ridiculous —- she is not a political animal or a religious commentator, she is an artist. And although Satrapi is scathing about the hypocrisies and cruelties of Iran’s theocracy, she is equally critical of George Bush’s Christian fundamentalism.
She accuses the West of cultural imperialism, saying it always reduces Iran to Hizbullah or The Arabian Nights; the flying carpet or the flying rocket. What she wanted to do in Persepolis was tell her story and show what it means to be Iranian for her.
Satrapi was born in 1969 in Rasht, near the Caspian Sea, and grew up in Tehran, where her father was an engineer and her mother a dress designer. She is descended from Iranian aristocrats —- her maternal great-grandfather was Nasser-al-Din Shah, Persian emperor from 1848 to 1896. But this does not make her as privileged as it sounds —- her great-grandfather had 100 wives. Go back far enough and you’ll find most Iranian families are blue-blooded, she says.
Her parents were Marxist intellectuals who enjoyed the good life. They campaigned against the Shah and looked forward to the Islamic revolution until it happened. They encouraged their only child to have her own opinions and Satrapi was always a sceptic.
“If the majority of people were right, we’d be living in paradise. But we are not living in paradise, we are living in hell. What does it mean? That means the majority of people are wrong. So I never believed what people told me.”
Satrapi says she is so intelligent that she was easily bored. I ask her if she has met anybody as intelligent as herself? She snorts: “No. Maybe Vincent, the guy with whom I made the movie.”
Satrapi could easily be obnoxious, but she’s not -— she’s saved by self-awareness and humour. She says she painted her most accurate self-portrait in her last book, Chicken with Plums, about her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a musician who starved himself to death after his instrument was broken.
“He is completely unbearable, narcissistic, egocentric, but also lovely and charming,” she says. “That’s how I see myself. You have to be narcissistic to be an artist. You have to think you are the centre of the whole thing, otherwise why do you create? The only thing is to recognise it and then you make the best of it.”
As a young woman, she says, she got things so wrong. “I was so stupid when I was 20. I could do mathematics extremely quickly so I had this kind of intelligence, but the intelligence of life I didn’t have. I was too aggressive, making all the bad choices, believing I was a nice person and I was not, believing I was a mean person and I wasn’t. Everything I thought was wrong. With age things become better and better.”
Her work, like her life, seems to segue from the ecstatic to the depressive. “Well, depressive — I don’t know. If you have a little sensibility or a heart you have all the reason to be depressed once in a while. But the depression is like a motor for creation. I need a little bit of depression, a bit of acid in my stomach, to be able to create. When I’m happy I just want to dance.”
Satrapi, who has lived in Paris for 12 years, says her identity as an artist was shaped in 1995 when she was given Art Spiegelman’s classic Holocaust graphic novel, Maus, as a birthday present. She had no idea art could tell stories in such a way.
She decided the comic book would be her chosen form, but was rejected time and again. She went to see the art director of one prominent French publisher who hated her work: “He said you don’t have any style, it goes in all different directions, and I came home depressed and cried for a week. Then two years after Persepolis was published and I got some prizes and I had a name, the secretary of this guy called me and said, ‘He wants to see you.’ So I went with the same book and he was like, ‘What courage! You have tried all these different styles.’
I said, ‘That’s not what you told me three years ago’. And he said, ‘Did I see you three years ago?’ I said, ‘You don’t have a very good memory, but I do.”
She laughs. “We ended up working together. I’m not a revenger kind of person.”
She started writing Persepolis when she was 29, in 1999, and it was published the following year. If she had written it 10 years earlier it would have been rubbish, she says, because it would have been too angry.
“I am against fundamentalism. I am not against any religion. It is the use of an ideology to kill people that I am against.”
When Persepolis was published she thought 300 people would buy it “to help this poor Iranian girl living in Paris”. So far it has sold well over a million copies and has been translated into 24 languages. What has delighted her is the story’s universal appeal —- it’s not just about Iran; it’s about growing up in any place with problems.
There is still something rootless about Satrapi. Now that the French have banned smoking in public places, she is looking to move again, perhaps to Greece. She has not returned to Iran, where her parents still live, for eight years. She does not know how safe she would be in Iran, where her books are available in samizdat form. She fears she might be thrown into jail —- not a risk she is prepared to take.
For now, perhaps her main contact with Iran is through her work. The film of Persepolis, which was nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature and won a César in France, among other prizes, features the voice of her all-time hero Iggy Pop (as well as Catherine Deneuve, Gena Rowlands and Chiara Mastroianni).
“For me Iggy Pop is a crooner, but he’s a desperate, angry crooner.” A similar marriage of the tender and the spiky, the humane and the misanthropic is what makes her work so memorable.
Now she has sufficient distance from the past, she can see that things are probably as good as they get. “I’m this woman from Iran, I’ve succeeded in what I wanted, I live in the city I want, I live with the man I want, I make the work I want and they pay me for it, which is incredible. How many people in the world have this luck?” —-