Marjane Satrapi's "Chicken with Plums"
Life Is Not Worth Living without the Love of Music

In her new cartoon novel, "Chicken with Plums," the Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her uncle. It's a melancholy parable of love and suffering, portrayed in remarkable pictures. By Petra Tabeling

​​Marjane Satrapi's new book could well have had a different title. The book isn't so much an introduction to the pleasures of Iranian cuisine as an introduction to the world of the author's uncle, Nasser Ali Khan, a man who simply couldn't live without his love for music and, more especially, without his passion for the Iranian stringed instrument, the tar.

Satrapi's story begins in Tehran on an autumn day in 1958. That's the day on which the famous Iranian tar virtuoso Nasser Ali has an argument with his wife which is to have major consequences. She accuses him of showing more interest in his music and his instrument than in his duties towards his family and his domestic responsibilities. Nasser Ali's music is worthless, and it doesn't bring any money in, she says repeatedly and cold-heartedly. In the end, in a fit of anger, she smashes the tar, Nasser Ali's most beloved possession.

That is the beginning of the end.

Nasser Ali goes out in search of a new instrument, but there is none to be found. No tar is as good as his old one. So Nasser Ali submits to his fate; he's so unhappy that he decides not to eat anything any more. He just wants to die. Even his favourite meal, a traditional Persian dish, chicken with plums, can't get him to change his mind.

An unsuccessful search for happiness

The tragic tale of a sensitive man who wants to die because the only remaining joy in his life has been taken from him sounds like an oriental fairy-tale. Satrapi tells the story, using her pictures to skip backwards and forwards in time. She ​​follows Nasser Ali's last eight days. In that period we learn about the life of her uncle,his great love which was ultimately disappointed, his arranged marriagewith a tedious but determined teacher, as well as about his mother, a Sufi mystic.

But Satrapi also shows absurdly comic scenes: for example, Nasser Ali's little-loved son Mozaffer emigrates to the USA following the Iranian revolution in 1979, decades after the death of his father. There he is able to fulfil his American dream, but he and his family fall prey to chronic obesity.

A parable of love and life

The 37-year-old artist portrays the sufferings of her uncle in wonderful, fantastic black-and-white drawings full of contrast. Nasser Ali's love of his instrument is like a parable of yearning for passion and freedom. These are motifs which Satrapi explored in her first comic, "Persepolis," a story about her own family and childhood in Iran. "Persepolis" was a runaway success, selling over a million copies around the world. That was a breakthrough for Satrapi, who is now working on a film cartoon version of "Persepolis."

Satrapi grew up in a liberal middle-class family in Tehran. In 1984 her parents sent her to Vienna to escape the effects of the Iranian revolution and the first Gulf war. Four years later she returned to Tehran and studied visual communication at the city's faculty of art. In 1994 she emigrated to France; she has not returned to Iran since, for fear of the possible reaction of the Iranian regime.

​​In Europe, Satrapi found herself confronted with clichés about Iranian society and ignorance about her Persian home. She hated the prejudices: Satrapi had said over and over again in interviews that the West only knows about chadors and understands nothing of the "proud Iranian culture." That gave her a major motive to try to reach a wide public with "Persepolis," explaining the political events in Iran in a simple and entertaining pictorial style.

In this new comic story, "Chicken with Plums," Satrapi lets the political dimension withdraw into the background. It's only hinted at, for example, when Nasser Ali dreams of the Western film star Sophia Loren. Iran in the fifties was influenced by the West, the veil was banned, film actors could reveal a bit of body, and musicians could dedicate themselves to their art with less difficulty.

For Satrapi, the most important aspect of her pictorial language is that people from all over the world can understand it. "I think that the language of comics is universal and international," she says. "The emotions are understood by everyone, whatever culture they come from. Someone laughing or crying means the same wherever you are." "Chicken with Plums" is a comic story about sadness, and it's a wonderful story too.

Petra Tabeling

© 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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