The veil of Maya The veil of Maya

Catalog "Marjane Satrape ovvero dell'ironia dell'Iran"
Published by Lizard Edizioni, 2003

Satrapi is above all an author of comics. For us at least, before being Iranian, French and a citizen of the world, she is the troubled witness of a troubled history. What has charmed us most in her work is the distinctive style of her artistry, the dense effect of woodcuts that recall a certain type of graphic art from the late sixties.

Her autobiography has also crossed paths with other lines of enquiry that we have come across on other situations, for example the work in the net Bio.Graphic by UBQ. It is always the intersection of paths that give rise to a project and make an idea attractive to us.

However, the force of the autobiography lies in its being an all pervading sign of reality. The recounting of a person’s own life forces the reader to “believe” its truthfulness, even if it is coloured by the strong viewpoint of the narrator writing in the first person.

Julius Caesar avoided this excessively objective standpoint by telling his story in the third person. Satrapi not only narrates in the first person, but draws, in her excessively self-critical way, revealing her physical nature and highly personal projection of herself onto paper. The world, on the other hand, is represented as we represent ourselves.

The effect of reading this comic is not only the simple reading of captions linked to a particular story that the author is telling. It is unusual, so to speak, because the experience of exile and living in a society undergoing profound changes is not so rare. On the other hand Satrapi has a story that urgently needs telling. In its urgency it remains unique and unrepeatable but at the same time it suggests other stories that could even be out own. The empathetic process is quite natural.

Reading, something I experienced directly through the eyes of my twelve-year-old daughter, even if removed from the historical context in which the events take place, produces a result of great identification and charm. This is particularly the case for children who find themselves in that particular period of transition that some call pre-adolescence, an age group so ambiguous as to defy definition, in which a young person is neither child nor adolescent. They find themselves examining their growth, with concentrated attention on the recent personal past, on the state of having been children. “How did I get to this point? And where am I going?” they ask desolately, looking at a room still full of dolls now without life.

Besides opening unexpected windows on the viewpoint of women in the world forcibly subjected to Islam by contemporary Iran, Persepolis is the voyage of initiation for a child who is turning into an adult. As such, it has the same symbolic value as initiation to adulthood rites in fairytales.

For a comic, it acquires considerable interpretative depth of meaning. The time dimension prevails over the spatial dimension (the panels are minimal and details of the surroundings are limited). This may seem banal but there are many ways to tell one’s own life story. Marjane chooses to begin from a precise point, not her birth, but the imposition of the veil at school. From this precise moment the story develops along a linear time line. The phenomenon from which the story begins also lends its name to the title of this exhibition. It may seem an exaggeration to call on philosophical assonance with Schopenauer (and it certainly is an exaggeration), but the play on words came naturally. The veil of Marjane has the same gnosiological disparity as the veil of Maya, the image taken from Indian philosophy from the philosophy of Danzica in which the reality of things hides behind a veil and what we perceive is nothing but illusion and appearance. The phenomenon of a real veil for women hides, behind its unquestionable tangible existence, a more complex perception that is not easy to classify in terms of Manichean categories of good and evil. Satrapi is not the only woman whose work is characterised by irony. There are others from the Islamic world who also have put us on our guard against facile and convenient interpretations of the “phenomena”, the appearances and attribution of meanings to exteriors. A sociologist who uses the instrument of ironic interpretation to interpret her and our world is Fatema Mernissi. When asked, in The Harem and the West, what corresponds to the harem in the western world and where is it hidden, she answers, speaking as a sociologist, with a little story from which the answer is inferred: the harem in the West is a size 42.

Personally, I found this simple phrase enlightening; enlightening because I was first provided with a detailed and substantial description of the baggage necessary to understand the meaning of the harem and what is inferred by the use of this word in another culture. In this sense, the keen eye of another has made it possible for me to obtain a better understanding of myself and my world. Marjane too, when she tells of her own viewpoint her vision of Austria and the years lived in Europe, arrives at the same result. Her vision of the European world becomes, for the European reader, an unveiling of his or her own world seen through the eyes of another. It is known through metaphors, assonance but mostly by differences.

When speaking of Marjane a distinction is always made between ‘woman’ (and we are already on another planet with just this word), Iranian (crossing a new iron curtain) and author of comics (odd folk that cannot be taken too seriously). If the difference should become an instrument in aid of knowledge, then I agree with emphasising these definitions. If not, I prefer the indeclinable and universal word ‘artist’.