By Leroy Douresseaux
April 19, 2009 - 13:42
|Chicken with Plums cover image is courtesy of barnesandnoble.com.|
Pantheon Books recently released a paperback edition of Chicken with Plums, the Marjane Satrapi comic book it published as a hardcover in 2006. L’Association originally published this book in French as Poulet Aux Prunes (2004).
Set in Tehran, Iran, Chicken with Plums is the story of Marjane’s great-uncle (her mother’s uncle), Nasser Ali Khan, a celebrated Iranian musician devoted to music over all else. In 1958, his wife Nahid breaks his tar (a guitar-like musical instrument). Nasser attempts to replace his cherished tar, but is unable to find another instrument that satisfies him. Heartbroken, Nasser takes to his bed and decides to die; eight days later, he is laid to rest. What happens in between is a story of pleasure and disappointment.
A press release speaks of Marjane Satrapi’s “trademark humor, insight, and generosity…” It’s been years since I’ve read Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I do remember how she put a humorous spin on Iran’s dark times in the book. Her generosity towards all her characters offered insight into their actions, but the truth is that Satrapi is simply a good storyteller. In fact, reading Chicken with Plums tells me that she is a natural born storyteller even more than reading Persepolis did.
People who are good at telling oral tales of family or local history bring the past alive to their listeners. When my mother talks of the past, my imagination creates its own little movies out of my mother’s storytelling. The people of whom she speaks aren’t just characters. They are like me in some ways, and I’m also engaged by how unique from me they are.
As a cartoonist, Satrapi takes words and pictures and creates a magic similar to the oral storyteller with her comic books. Chicken with Plums is family history sprinkled with folklore, politics, national history, and religion. The tale of Nasser Ali Khan isn’t merely a historical vignette about a man who goes to bed to die. By adding these other elements, Satrapi puts the story in a context that makes it timeless and universal, yet also fresh and new.
This tale of regret, dissatisfaction, and family dysfunction hits home with the reader. A good storyteller knows how to make her audience not only identify with the characters, but place himself in the story. Nasser Ali Khan and his family are like any other family and also like no other. Satrapi’s ability to both engage us with the familiar and enthrall us with something different is the mark of an exceptional, special comic book storyteller.