Review: Chicken and Plums graphic novel (Pantheon)

Monday, November 15, 2010

[Guest review by Tom Speelman]

Marjane Satrapi is, to me, the new Alan Moore. Though she’s only been around comics for a decade, she has produced a story of such monumental achievement in her two-part graphic novel memoir Persepolis, that any other work she publishes will be judged based on that. That’s a real shame, because Chicken With Plums is a fantastic book, and one that deserves to be noticed.

Satrapi is back in the well of biography, but not her own story, although she does have a cameo at the end; instead, this is the story of her great-uncle, Nassar Ali Khan, a renowned tar player in Tehran, Iran in the 1950s.

What is a "tar?" Well, it’s hard to say really; it looks like an elongated lute mixed with a guitar and sounds like a mix of a banjo and a violin. I’m listening to tar music as I write this and it’s fascinating. If you look it up, the tar’s an instrument with much cultural history in the Middle East.

[Contains spoilers]

The book is structured in an unconventional manner. At the beginning, in 1958, Nasser, after encountering a woman on the street (the full importance of this isn’t revealed until the end) heads to a music shop and tries several tars out over a period of a month to replace the one broken by his wife. Eventually he journeys to the city of Mashad and buys a tar said to be the best in the world. He goes home, plays it, and through a beautiful sequence, the music is ruined for him and to quote the text itself, “Since no other tar could give him the pleasure of playing, Nassar Ali Khan decided to die.” The next page? A shot of his funeral. 

That’s it. We know how it ends. But it’s not over; Satrapi tells us that he died eight days later after the events of the opening. But we see through Satrapi’s gorgeous black-and-white pencil-and-brush-ink artwork that Nassar Ali is flashing back and forth between his past, his present, and his dreams, and it’s utterly captivating to read.

The story is told mostly in flashback, and a reader’s only way of distinguishing between the two is that the panels in the flashback sequences have dark backgrounds, whereas the present-day ones do not. There are a lot of these flashbacks: some are funny, some are strange, and a lot are tragic. A very profound sequence is the one in which his wife snaps at him for not picking up his son from school and, enraged, breaks his tar. The panel of her breaking the instrument over her knee while angrily proclaiming “There!” is so stark, it gives you a jolt.

The title of the book is a reference to Nassar’s favorite food, but when his wife makes it in hopes of reconciliation, he spits it out in disgust. This incident gives you just the tip of the iceberg on just how much animosity there is in their relationship and it’s heartbreaking to watch their love unfold with such promise but soon fade away. 

This is a book that drives home the reality and finality of death, as well as that sense of the unknown that always lurks about the subject. It’s no wonder Satrapi won the Best Album award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2005. She is a master of the comics form and if Persepolis suggested it, Chicken with Plums proves it.
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1 comment:

  1. Tom, good stuff. I love Satrapi too, but I really have to take issue with your lead statement that Satrapi is the new Moore. It seems that you're basing this comparison on the fact that "Persepolis" is to Satrapi what "Watchmen" is to Moore. On one level, that's true, but I think it's also pretty universally accepted that Moore has done fabulous work both pre- and post-
    Watchmen". If your comparison is a little deeper, though, I'd be extremely reticent to say that. Satrapi's work, while very good, is extremely personal; Moore, however, has a way of writing things that speak to his personal interests, to the human condition at large, and to the very nature of comic book storytelling at large(st). I'd sooner compare Satrapi to Art Spiegelman, who seems to be (as it were) living in the shadow of "Maus."

    The only reason I bring this up is because I just started reading Moore's "Supreme" today, and it reaffirms everything I ever loved about Alan Moore. I'd fallen out of love with him after "Lost Girls," which was pretty sick pornography disguised (and mismarketed, in my case) as a thematic sequel to LOEG (speaking of which, where's the rest of "Century"?). But after "Supreme," I may be a Moore-head again, though it's doubtful at this point he'll ever surpass Grant Morrison as my favorite, even in spite of the jaw-dropping brilliance that is "Watchmen."