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Loneliness in black and white

Marjane Satrapi?s portrait of a great-uncle stricken by a broken musical instrument is a universal story about loneliness.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2006 13:58 IST

Chicken With Plums
Author:
Marjane Satrapi
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 84
Price: Rs 650 

The graphic novel, for some reason or the other, is supposed to be ‘dark’ — depicting something cultish that ‘non-illustrated’ books are unable to depict. For better or worse, that is changing. ‘Comic books’, a term that most ‘graphic novelists’ are more comfortable with, are less obsessed with showcasing the ‘cult’ side. The result of this ‘freedom’ is that some graphic novelists are producing works that could be termed as ‘cute’ or plain ‘nice’. In the case of Marjane Satrapi and her latest book, Chicken With Plums, cuteness is not a dirty word, not even in graphic novel territory.

As in her critically acclaimed Persepolis series, The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return, Satrapi pretty much sketches her own memories and her past in stylised black-and-white ink frames. Part of the charm was reading about what it was to be growing up and then living in pre and post-revolution Iran and part of it was appreciating Satrapi’s stylised method in depicting those memories.

It worked in the two-volume Persepolis. Unfortunately, it didn’t in her third book, Embroideries, which takes us through the tea-drinking, for everyapping alley-ways of love and sex and comments about Iranian men, courtesy Satrapi’s remembrances of what her (tough-talking) grandmother and mother and (eccentric) aunt and neighbours had to say.

Chicken With Plums also culls from memory. But instead of zoning in on a grand subject — in the case of Embroideries, women in Iran — she paints a bigger picture by choosing a smaller canvas: her great-uncle. 

 
 A panel from Satrapi's graphic novel

We feel the expecting pathos from the very first frame: a lanky figure in a hat and overcoat occupying the space-time of Tehran, 1958, passing a woman and child on the street. Clearly, Nasser Ali Khan, one of Iran’s most celebrated tar players, is a man alone in his world of music. The frisson that happens in the very first page — Nasser addressing the woman walking with her grandson on the street who fails to recognise him — suggests that the protagonist is a lonely man. We later learn that he has an extremely strong relationship with his tar — a traditional Iranian stringed instrument related to the lute — and once that connection is broken, he plummets into a crisis. The world pretty much stops for Nasser Ali after his tar is broken and he is unable to replace it.

Satrapi plays with the reader as to whether her great-uncle is correct in concluding that there is no other tar perfect enough for him, or whether Nasser Ali is just be having like any difficult great-uncle. The whole family tries to change his mind but Nasser Ali has no wish to comply with the compromises — musical or otherwise — that the rest of the world wants him to make. In his unwillingness to be in the present where there is no tar that he can play, Nasser Ali takes temporary solace in flashbacks and memories — both courtesy Satrapi’s simple, yet stimulating narrative.

Apart from being a magical entry point into Iranian life in the Fifties (George Bush, a flip through this book, perhaps?), Chicken with Plums is a story of an individual made in caramelised black-and-white ink. The most poignant moment for the reader is when Nasser Ali rejects his favourite dish, chicken with plums — “his mother’s speciality, prepared with chicken, plums... onions, tomatoes, turmeric and saffron, served with rice”. This is when his final decline begins. Once Satrapi’s great-uncle rejects one of his biggest pleasures — and thereby, pleasure in general, already marked by the inability to play his tar — all he does is wait for death.

Satrapi’s artwork shoves innocence into the reader’s face. The lines are as simple as the narrative. And yet, this story, told in a children’s story fashion, does not seem cloying or more importantly, culture-whoring, simply because it has a straight story to tell. The man in an overcoat walking with a tar case in hand is as good a metaphor for a lonely man as an overcoated bloke with a Galoise and his collars turned up in a Parisian crowd.

Satrapi returns to form — especially narrative form — after that digression in Embroideries. And yet, the Persepolis series was the world of Iran seen through the author’s eyes, touching but always too close to the bone to be realised. With Chicken With Plums, Satrapi chooses a hero and his woes, makes us sympathise with him, and then proceeds to tell her tale.

Satrapi’s drawing style has not veered from her earlier works — it still retains that simple line and simple contours that mark contemporary documentary graphic novels like those of Joe Sacco’s. But unlike others, she marks her work by this refreshingly honest and innocent method of telling her tale. There is little in terms of opinion, public history or high falutin hectoring that comes in the way of the story of Nasser Ali and his broken tar.

There are dollops of humourhumour in this book, firmly stapled on to the pathos. But what makes it work is that before and after it is a story about a lonely Iranian musician, it is about a lonely man.