|Marjane Satrapi, Chicken with Plums (Pantheon, 2006). 96 pp. (hardcover) $16.95|
By Hillary Chute
Marjane Satrapi’s Poulet aux prunes, first published in the author’s adoptive home country of France in 2005, won the prestigious Best Album Award at the annual Angouleme International Comics Festival, beating out titles by comics luminaries like Kim Deitch and Chester Brown. In the U.S., the comics-loving literary journal VQR recently published major excerpts of the work in translation. (VQR assumed importance in the comics world when it issued parts of Art Spiegelman’s breathtaking forthcoming memoir Portrait of the Artist as Young %@?*!). The book will finally come out in a handsome hardcover edition from Pantheon as Chicken with Plums in October. While the 96-page Chicken with Plums—as with Satrapi’s most recent book, Embroideries—can feel slight on one’s first read, it is actually a complex story that is all the more resonant and interesting because it is resolutely depressing.
Rendered in monochromatic black and white, the book is set in Tehran in 1958. At the outset, the famed musician Nasser Ali Khan, the author’s great-uncle, is in despair because his tar is broken (snapped in half, we later learn, by his wife). He tries several inadequate tars with increasing levels of misery before deciding that in light of the circumstances he should die. He gets into his bed and, as the narration reveals, “Eight days later, November 22, 1958, he was buried beside his mother in Shemiran Zahirolodoleh cemetary [sic]. All those who had known him were present on that day” (18). A full-page panel shows his headstone near a tree and an assemblage of mourners.
The structure of the book, looking backwards, then moves us through these eight days, with each chapter named for a day in the demise of the lachrymose yet charming Nasser Ali Khan, who has the slim, graceful face of an arrogant artist (complete with a gorgeous mustache). In a lovely touch, the title page of each chapter offers a stark close-up of Nasser Ali in bed: the shadows under his eyes, his growing stubble, his deep frown, his alternately peaceful or tortured posture. In the first day, we learn that Nasser Ali—sometimes prone to diffident fatherhood—loves his daughter Farzaneh the best, in part because of his interest in morphopsychology and the likeness of their features. (Yet we learn that his chubby, uncultured son Mozaffar, whom he doesn’t like, is the only one who prays for him to keep living). The narrative takes us back to a tender outing of father and daughter when she was smaller; then Satrapi (ever the autobiographer) even puts herself in the picture. She narrates a visit she and her mother paid to the grown-up Farzaneh in 1998. Farzaneh, a depressive and an avid chain smoker, “died a short time later, following her third heart attack” (28). Clearly, Satrapi is not interested in making a happy family out of a tragic one; both father and daughter died before their time.
The second day is particularly moving and exposes some inalterable facts of family dynamics: Nasser Ali’s brother, Abdi, who has an upbeat round face and glasses, was the brilliant student to Nasser Ali’s less-valued prankster. The economy of Satrapi’s aesthetic is remarkable: in just a few brief scenes—the past is visually darkened, presenting a black background to 1958’s invariably white one—we see each brother, in turn, flushed with shame (which Satrapi represents by a few surprisingly sad and effective crosshatches on the cheek). We see Nasser Ali reprimanded as a child for his inattention to school. And then we see him, in the present, reprimanding his brother who has paid his deathbed a visit for the irresponsibility of being a communist. “Mom had to squander our family’s entire fortune [to get you out of prison] so you could play at being a hero!,” he scolds. Yet Satrapi, fluctuating between past and present, also delivers the heartbreaking scene in which Nasser Ali’s mother, in a moment of her own despair unmarked by inhibition, confesses her preference among her sons. “Oh, my Abdi! I love him more than anyone in the world,” she cries to Nasser Ali during Abdi’s imprisonment.
In the space of very few pages, Satrapi establishes a complex relationship. And while the adult brothers love each other, and Abdi momentarily perks his brother up by reminding him of the lusciousness of Sophia Loren, the two know it will be their last encounter (hence Nasser Ali’s apology, at the end of the visit, for his recriminations). When on the third day the schoolteacher Nahid, Nasser Ali’s wife, tries to reconcile with him by cooking chicken and plums—his mother’s specialty and his favorite—he spits out the food when he remembers how she had broken his tar. The narration here switches back and forth from Nahid, who is inspired to recollect to her husband how she had fallen in love with him, to Nasser Ali’s own recollections of that period (primarily his intense love for the glamorous Irane, whose father forbid her to marry a musician). The chapter ends with Nasser Ali saying to Nahid—very truthfully, it seems—“I don’t love you… I never loved you” (48).
Chicken and Plums is, after all, a love story, and a sad one at that. It is a portrait of a musician whose calling is devalued and yet who turns to his music even more passionately after the rejection of Irane’s family. After the blow that dissolves his union with Irane, Nasser Ali plays for his master tar teacher and then breaks into tears. The master consoles him, “Don’t worry about it, my child. Tell yourself you are experiencing a true love story…. You’re suffering! That’s why you’re playing so well now!” (77). At the end of the lesson, the master gives Nasser Ali the tar that belonged to his own master and simply tells him, “I have nothing more to teach you.” Satrapi then presents several charming scenes of Nasser Ali playing tar, all while imagining the lovely Irane. It is implied that he imagines her literally every single time he plays the tar; his cherished memory of her and his playing the tar have become inextricable. His unrealized love for her is shown as productive, not as regressive or stagnating. When his wife—a woman who little understands why Nasser Ali’s head is perpetually in the clouds—breaks his tar in anger, something more than only an instrument is broken.
The book’s last pages are almost devastating. On the eighth day, Satrapi returns to the present-day scene that opens the book. On his way to buy himself a new tar, Nasser Ali stops a woman in the street who doesn’t recognize him. Satrapi draws this scene again at the story’s close, but this time she draws it from the perspective of Irane. After the man apologizes and turns away, her face grows still. “Grandma! Will you buy me a ball?” her grandson asks. Irane stops dead in the street and simply says, “Nasser Ali.” The next panel shows her crying as her grandson says, “Grandma! What’s the matter? You’ve gone pale!”
Irane recognizes him too late. Nasser Ali and Irane never see each other or talk again. We learn on this eighth day that Nasser Ali decides to die in part because of the weight of both his broken tar and what he erroneously believes is Irane’s indifference to the memory of their love. He can no longer play and think of her with every note as he had done. The last scene is Nasser Ali’s funeral, a scene that Satrapi also draws twice. This second time, all of the mourners are mere black shapes outlined in white, and the only rendered figure among them is Irane, who stares at the headstone and weeps. In turn, the angel of death, Azrael, standing next to her, stares at her. Nasser Ali died of heartbreak, and, it is suggested, Irane might be next. The very last page of the book is Azrael, alone, unbordered, slinking across the middle of the page in the direction of the endpapers.
Satrapi intercuts between past and present deftly, using small moments from the past to indicate volumes about the life of Nasser Ali. That events are presented and then re-presented from different perspectives is one of the book’s greatest strengths: its shifting perspectives, in a slow, accretive way, complete our knowledge of the depth of actions that had once perhaps seemed simple or straightforward. And while the book zigzags among the 30s and 50s and 90s and 70s and 80s and 20s, it yet feels compact—a tightly crafted, layered work. And while its central love story offers no consolation, no happy ending, its endearing examination of the life of an artist—despite the brevity of that life—is itself uplifting. Satrapi’s generous, intelligent authorial vision, which made Persepolis so compelling, is present here too: she explores hard facts but never without humor. Refusing to romanticize the artist, but showing clear respect for his choices, Chicken with Plums is a slender but rich narrative.