Bare Necessities

What sustains a life? Food, water, shelter, certainly -- all the tangibles taught in a survival course. But the ineffables -- ideas, loves, passions, and pleasures -- spell life or death, too, as Marjane Satrapi's new book Chicken with Plums attests.

This Romantic notion has been around at least as long as consumptive poets have been swooning under weeping willows. But in her latest graphic novel, the tale of her great-uncle, a famed musician who loses his beloved instrument and his will to live, Satrapi strips down the idea and gives it a stark beauty.

Plums is Satrapi's most structurally daring narrative, and perhaps her most subtle in its depiction of her hotbed homeland, Iran. In her past three works, Satrapi has made a name for herself by braiding together intimate, memoir-ish narratives with Iranian history. In Plums, a eulogy to the death of pleasure, Satrapi works on both the personal and political scale once again. Her references to Iran are more allusive than in her previous works, but just as haunting.

Satrapi is an artist who taketh away -- where others might lard on stylistic curlicues, she creates images the way a woodcut artist or a sculptor might, paring away excess to reveal the essentials underneath. It's a technique, honed over the course of Satrapi's three previous books, that works well for Plums -- austere graphics paired with high sentiment. The "faux-naif" visuals of her debut, Persepolis, had a harsh power, juxtaposing Satrapi's keen-eyed memories of her childhood in Iran against the scrim of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Persepolis 2 relayed the pain of exile and estranged homecoming in more audacious, experimental drawings. Embroideries, a dirty valentine to the sorts of conversations women have behind closed doors, was a smaller, more intimate work, as Plums also seems to be upon first glance.

All of Satrapi's works feature real-life family and friends, but her alert eye for bad behavior even among her loved ones keeps her work from devolving into grotesque self-indulgence. Satrapi reserves her harshest criticisms for herself -- the figure of her self-portrait is precocious and sensitively skeptical, but sometimes sharp or callous. And in her great-uncle, Satrapi has found a refractory figure, someone who magnifies the passionate and uncompromising tendencies she's depicted in her drawings of herself. Satrapi, in the books, has the raw callow of youth; not Nasser Ali Khan. Plums is a portrait of the artist as an old git.

As Satrapi introduces him in a swift overture, Nasser is a brilliant but difficult musician, broken-hearted -- someone has broken his beloved tar -- but cruelly dismissive of his family. He searches for a new instrument, but to no avail. Nothing can give him pleasure the way playing his old tar did, so Nasser decides to refuse all food, lie down, and die -- and die he does, a mere eight days later.

The bulk of Plums is devoted to these eight days in between Nasser's fateful decision and his passing. But where the opening of the book is a masterful piece of brisk, linear storytelling, the depiction of the eight days is considerably more experimental, almost cinematic, flashing forward and back in time, featuring visitations from the past and the fantastical. The futures of Nasser's children flicker through; the angel of death pays a bemused visit.

Plums begins with the words, "I'm hungry" -- a fitting opening for a book about physical and emotional sustenance. At the end of his second painful day in bed, the hunger artist begins to fantasize about his favorite dish, his mother's specialty, the titular chicken with plums. The chicken slowly emerges out of the coverlet before transforming into…a pair of sumptuous breasts. Soon none other than Sophia Loren draws herself out of the bed, whispering "Vieni, vieni," and, in one of the book's most powerful, moving frames, Nasser lies cradled on her giant, lush body -- the impossible incarnation of pleasure, of everything he has been deprived of, the savor and succor of life.

In keeping with her previous work, Satrapi doesn't hesitate to brush against politics in Plums. Nasser's demise unreels against a backdrop of blemished hope, the period after the 1951 CIA- and British-backed coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalized the country's oil. To this day, progressive Iranians and many in the Iranian diaspora hold Mossadegh up as representing the squelched possibility for indigenous democracy in Iran -- the thwarted "what if" hero.

The secret behind Nasser's life and death, Satrapi eventually reveals, embodies a similarly shattered chance for happiness and fulfillment, and he searches for a new tar just the same way Iranians must have cast about for a new hero after the downing of Mossadeq. While Satrapi is dedicated to illustrating, in sympathy, the reasons behind Nasser's decision, Plums also shows the cost of Nasser's -- and perhaps, by association, Iran's -- enthrallment to the what-could-have-been. The book offers a glimpse at how thwarted desires for self-determination can turn into a trap of seductive, doomed nostalgia -- drawing life back into the impossible past and dimming the chances at happiness in the present. This unfulfilled longing is much like the ever-present, sumptuous cigarette smoking in which the characters of >Plums indulge with such relish -- a thing of private beauty, but also its own slow death.

Satrapi's style here is more muted than in her most visually daring, expressionist work, Persepolis 2, although she makes some unusual formatting decisions -- the pages are thick with small frames, sometimes running in as many as four columns. The overall effect is of a slim but densely packed tale: eight days that capture a life story. While sometimes all the storylines are difficult to track -- Satrapi tries to signal time skips with a black backdrop, a device that may initially elude some readers -- the narrative experimentation, including the quieter but perhaps more poetic allusions to Iran's own turmoil, are welcome developments. For all its spareness, Plums plants hints at many themes in the beginning that come to full fruition in the end -- how the reviled child often loves his parent the most, the heartbreaking brevity of Iran's social and sexual revolution, how contentment may be the province of those for whom food is only food. In the end, Plums reads like both a beautiful suicide note and an exhortation to the living -- in the words of one of Nasser's friends, "To live, it's not enough to be alive."

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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