Recently-read: A Woman in Berlin and Persepolis

I read these two in my last week in Berlin and on the way home [something has to distract me from flying]. One is really famous these days, with the release of the film, and the other ought to be more famous. [UPDATE: It will be! With the release of the film! How prescient am I? VERY]

Persepolis is a graphic novel giving us the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran, and was just 10 when the Islamic Revolution came in 1979. The little girl suddenly found herself having to veil up, be separated from boys in class (and, eventually, everywhere) and watch what she says, does and wears. Otherwise, “The Guardians of the Revolution,” groups of women who support the regime and check up on others, will take her to “The Committee,” where she could be detained for any amount of time. Just for not having her scarf on straight or wearing trainers.

The cute drawings help Satrapi to mock the uselessness of the “Guardian” job, as seen in this picture. They look like two huge, shapeless monsters looming out of the landscape and picking on a harmless little kid – and that’s what they seemed like to the young Satrapi.

This sequence shows how Iran used to be more liberal, particularly for women. The cartoon suggests the silliness of Marjane’s childhood fears, but the reality of the changes [“Thus, the universities were closed for two years”] is undeniable. Sometimes, the pictures make a greater impact than words, such as when Marjane and her friends are transformed from good, veiled Muslim women, to girls dressed up for a gathering as they enter a house, or when a friend falls to his death when escaping a raid on a party. This particular sequence is played out completely without words, as the fragile white silhouette falls from the tall, dark, ominous buildings. The descriptions of the torture and deaths of people persecuted by the state are also often depicted in these simple drawings without words, reflecting the sad fact that a child should know of, and try imagine, such things.

It’s also funny:

A Woman in Berlin is the diary of a journalist trapped in a city under siege. Berlin fell to the Soviet Army on 20th April 1945, and the “anonymous” author’s account continues until 22nd June. The Soviets were renowned for getting drunk and raping on a grand scale on their advance through eastern Germany. Our narrator is raped many times over the course of the two months of the diary, the first time by two men, after she has saved another woman from their attention. There’s a complete lack of self-pity; she describes her fear, but there’s no “poor me,” or even “why me?”

Instead, her survival instincts kick in, and she bands together with another woman in her building in order to share provisions, and decides to “find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible,” in the hopes that the other men will keep away from a superior’s territory. The plan does and does not work, as, in a city where there is no power or water, where so many buildings have been obliterated and so many have fled, there are few rules. There are, horribly, lots of references to her eating nettles. It’s a very honest documentation of how people act in a desperate situation.

In other books, I want to read Voices from Chernobyl. Here is an excerpt:

I forgot to say that we lived in Pripyat, near the reactor. I can still see the bright-crimson glow, it was like the reactor was glowing. This wasn’t any ordinary fire, it was some sort of shining. It was pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn’t have them went to friends’ houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said, “Look! Remember!” And these were people who worked at the reactor — engineers, workers, physics instructors. They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around on their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful.



  1. Hi joan,

    Just saw your comment! Yes, I would loved to have read an interview with that anonymous author, what a time she loved through, and how well and how clearly she conveyed it.

    Satrapi’s cartoons doing a very nice job of showing rather than telling some of the more disturbing elements of life in Iran post-revolution.


  2. hi,
    Of course the whole world has read Satrapi’s book, and then, there’s the movie. she found the perfect form for her story. Marjane is alive and kicking in Paris, working on her next movie.
    Woman in Berlin came out in France about 2 years ago. It is amazing and what a shame that this author died, so we can’t know more. This is the interview we will never read.


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