Marjane Satrapiís Persepolis was an inspired portrayal of a world whose strangeness was matched only by its enduring humanity; images made real a world most Americans only knew about tangentially from the news. Her spare, thick-lined drawings, which look like the sophisticated French version of cartoons, brought an air of normality to Iranís revolutionary era. And as a piece of realism demystifying a foreign era, Persepolis was unparalleled.
Chicken with Plums is a different type of story: it adds Biblically intense passions and a non-linear narrative to the familiar mix of folk-family history and historical storytelling. If nothing else, Satrapi fans from Persepolis should take interest in Chicken with Plums for how she uses those same images and simple, resonant sentences to create an entirely different type of story.
Chicken with Plums is a more intimate, private story. It relates the end of her great-uncleís life, who, after the tar (similar to a Persian sitar) that made him a nationally-renowned musician breaks, consigns himself to die. Unable to find a suitable replacement and incapable of finding an alternative outlet, he lies in his bed for eight days until he expires. We read Ė as uncomfortable voyeurs more than as a disinterested audience Ė the story of those eight days, which also stretch into his past and future. Through these narrative interludes, we gain a greater sense of who Nasser Ali was and what drove him to such a passive suicide.
What we get is a slim piece trying to entwine grand emotionality into a contemporary tale. Satrapi wants to convey an intimate family moment but also tell the romanticized story of a tragic hero, a poet of music with all the accompanying emotional hang-ups. In some ways, this effort fails. The art and narration feel too straightforward and familiar to craft an air of larger-than-life storytelling. Nasser Ali, tortured artist and somewhat unsuccessful father, has little of the tragic hero in him. And since Satrapi relies on our falling into this grand folk-tale mindset to become emotionally engaged with the story, we never fully do.
Furthermore, while Chicken with Plums is an intimate story, neither its plot nor its narrative make it a truly remarkable private family drama. In both these respects, Satrapi attempts to make the piece two things that itís not. The tension between the two modes of storytelling Ė exotic and mystical versus personal and familiar Ė almost ensure such a project cannot fulfill all its ambitions.
But when viewed outside these formal constraints, Chicken with Plums has a lot of charm. Here Satrapiís simple drawings work to their fullest advantage: they are intensely honest and tell a story with just the right amount of fictionalized gloss. When viewed as a collection of recollections, the novel really comes to life. Chicken with Plums is a real meditative work; Satrapiís thoughts about her family come through with perfect clarity. The novelís playfulness with linear narrative serves well to enhance this effect: as Satrapi wanders, so do we, and the asides never feel like non sequiturs. As a work of great ambition, Chicken with Plums mostly falls through. But as a slim, reflective volume chronicling one manís unhappiness, this novel is a thoughtful, even beautiful, read.