Jun 15, 2010

Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Set in Iran in the 1950’s, Chicken With Plums is the story of Nasser Ali Khan, Marjane Satrapi’s great-uncle. Nasser is a celebrated musician, a tar player. One day, his wife breaks his instrument during an argument, and after several failed attempts to repair or replace it, Nasser takes to his bed and decides to give up on life. Chicken With Plums follows his last few days and his loved ones’ attempts to make him regain his interest in life – or to coach him to eat by cooking his favourite dish, which gives the graphic novel its title. These are alternated with flashbacks that help the reader understand the many factors that made Nasser reach a point of such despair.

I think Alberto Manguel’s distinction between journeys and homecomings will be useful to help me make sense of this book. This story was very much a journey into foreign territory for me – and I don’t mean this because it’s set in a culture I don’t know too much about. What I mean is that the idea of simply giving up on life is so strange to me. If this sounds a bit Wheee-Rainbows-Unicorns-Kittehs!, it’s not meant to. I know what it’s like to battle depression, and I know that the problem with depression is exactly that it makes you stop caring about anything. But there has always been something or someone that strongly anchored me to life, even in my bleakest moments. I acknowledge that this is a huge privilege, which is why I told myself to stop wanting to jump into the story, shake Nasser, and drag him out of his bed and try to simply listen to the story I was being told instead.

To say Nasser decided to die because his tar is broken is of course an oversimplification: as the story progresses, we realise that his disappointment has other causes, and that the episode with the tar was merely the last drop. Nasser’s music was his greatest passion, but it was also the one thing that gave him comfort in a life that turned out very different from the one he’d have chosen for himself. When that’s taken away from him, he falls apart.

Chicken With Plums

Marjane Satrapi’s talent as a storyteller shows in the fact that she manages to make Nasser sympathetic even while he acknowledges how unfair he’s being to those who aren’t to blame for what went wrong in his life – namely his family. Nasser’s marriage is not a happy one, and couldn’t have been from the very start for reasons over which his wife has absolutely no control. And the children he leaves behind are of course completely powerless. He dismisses them as not really interested in whether their father lives or dies, but the reader can see that this is not so. There’s a very moving scene in which Nasser decides that the reasons why he hasn’t died yet is because someone is praying for him to live, and this can only be his daughter, as she’s the only one who still cares about him. In the top floor of the house, we see his little soon kneeling and praying for him.

Chicken With Plums

In the end, I felt terrible for Nasser, even as I struggled with his decision and with his blindness to the hurt he’s causing. And I felt just as bad for the loved ones he left behind. I’m in awe of Marjane Satrapi’s ability to include such a wide range of emotions in such a short book, and to tell such a resonant story with such economy. (And also to include moments of humour in a book that sounds so completely bleak!) Chicken With Plums is a story of deep disappointment; disappointment of a kind I have never experienced before. I’m thankful that Satrapi gave me a glimpse of it – isn’t widening our emotional range one of the things books are for?

Chicken With Plums

They read it too:
If You Can Read This, Lost in a Good Story, The Zen Leaf, Melody’s Reading Corner, Jenny’s Books, Out of the Blue, The Inside Cover

(Have I missed yours?)

36 comments:

  1. This sounds really fabulous, I have never read a graphic novel before! Will try and locate it somewhere :) Thanks for the great review.

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  2. This is the first graphic novel I read by Marjane Satrapi, and I look forward to reading Persepolis since I've heard nothing but raves about it! :)

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  3. I love Marjane Satrapi, she is a genius! Her books are hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes within the same frame.

    The images that you included are wonderful and I can't wait to read this book now.

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  4. I'm afraid I couldn't get past how frustrating I found Nasser Ali's giving up, because of his having a kid. I kept hoping he was going to get out of bed and put on his big-girl panties and deal with it - BUT NO. Not my favorite by Satrapi.

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  5. I loved Persepolis, so I know I want to read this one. I am wondering if this uncle was mentioned in Persepolis, as I remember reading about one.

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  6. I also enjoyed Persepolis and have been looking to read more graphic novels by Satrapi. This looks like an excellent one - I'll have to recommend it to my comic book club!

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  7. This sounds like a sad story. I loved Persepolis 1 and 2, so will have to check this out.

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  8. Interesting how many of the graphic novels - or at least the ones I've run into - seem to be about sadness. It's impressive how well it can be conveyed in that format. Even the pictures you reproduced feel sad. I realize as I'm writing this that graphic novels probably don't convey the skill they take because in our mind on one level we're thinking "comic strips" and so perhaps are more dismissive.

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  9. I tried to pick this up when it first came out but my bookstore hadn't gotten a hold of it yet and I actually kind of forgot about it. I'll be honest in saying I had no idea the dark subject matter--I think the title made me think it would be more light hearted. But I do love Satrapi's storytelling and graphics. You mention widening emotional range and I think graphic novels do this for me on a whole other level.

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  10. looks wonderful ana ,and love the title so quirky ,all the best stu

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  11. Lovely review Ana! I have read Satrapi's 'Persepolis' and loved it. I have heard some great things about 'Chicken with Plums' and it was wonderful to see all that confirmed in your review. I liked very much your observation - 'isn’t widening our emotional range one of the things books are for?' Very true. I also found your comment - 'the idea of simply giving up on life is so strange to me' - quite thought-provoking. It is quite interesting that in our way of thinking today, this idea seems a bit depressing and alien. I have read about Buddhist monks and others who followed in this path doing that after they reached a particular age - they stop eating and just fast and pray and meditate everyday and the hunger kills them.

    One of my fond dreams is to be one of the first commenters in atleast one post of my friend Ana's blog :) Today I nearly made it - I saw just one comment when I read your post - but then my cousin 'ruined' my plan by dropping in and when I was back a few hours later, there were many more comments. But I am going to keep trying :)

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  12. This novel made me cry at the end, the scene at the funeral. How ironic and painful. It's actually my favorite Satrapi that I've read, followed closely by Embroideries.

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  13. Must. Find. This. Book. I so enjoyed Satrapi's Persepolis duo. Interesting take on the effects of depression.

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  14. This sounds like a look at depression in a way that I haven't experienced before. It does sound really bleak, but I also think it sounds as if it is attempting to really delve into the hows and whys of the situation. I have not read Persepolis, but that's on my list too. I actually think I'd like to start with this one. Thanks for the great review!!

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  15. Wow, this sounds very powerful, but I don't know if I'd be able to read it objectively, either. I think it's very difficult for me to sympathize, which is horrible and just speaks more of my privilege, I know.

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  16. The only Satrapi I've read so far is Persepolis and I so want to read this and Embroideries. She just does it right....She's excellent at capturing human emotions and relating the reader to something we may have never experienced. This sounds really good! Really sad, but really good.

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  17. Oh this sound really interesting. I really enjoyed Persepolis (one more then two) I guess I'll have to inter-library it one day. My library is good but it doesn't have a big graphic novel selection.

    Great review!

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  18. I recently read this one as well, and was struck by the power of loss on this man. Since I really like Satrapi's work, I thought I'd be falling all over this one, but I ended up not liking it as much as some of the others. I know I probably needed more aesthetic distance, like you mentioned in your own reading.

    On a side note, I really loved Satrapi's graphic novel, Embroideries. I think I just connected to that one a bit more.

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  19. I loved Persepolis so much that I haven't been ready to try any of her other books yet, for fear that I might hold them to too high of a standard. But reading this review really got me thinking that enough time has passed, and I'm ready for Chicken With Plums!

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  20. I've had Persepolis on my list and will add this one too. This one sounds really sad but I want to read it anyway.

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  21. I'm not a big graphic novel reader (having only read one) but I do find it hard to imagine being ready to give up on life...yet the journey that some people take to reach this decision is always interesting to me.

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  22. You intrigued me so much, I am putting this on hold at the library as we speak. :) This will be my second graphic novel, so it's kind of virgin territory for me. I requested Persepolis, too. I love the personal details you wove into this review.

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  23. I enjoyed her other books, so I'm sure I'll read this at some point, but it sounds so sad, I need to wait until I'm in the right frame of mind for it. Thanks for the review!

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  24. I think I need to pick up more Satrapi. This one sounds really thought-provoking.

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  25. I love your graphic novels reviews the most. I still have to read Persepolis though...

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  26. I thought that Embroideries was a wonderful read and enjoyed Persepolis so I will seek this one out too - thanks for the reminder!

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  27. I just read this one too and really loved it. Satrapi is an amazing storyteller!

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  28. Verity: Sadly, the recipe is not included :P

    Elise: It's not a bad place to start, but I did like Marjane Satrapi's other books better.

    Melody: I'm sure you'll love it!

    tea lady: I love her too, for those very same reasons :)

    Jenny: I struggled with that too, and I didn't enjoy it as much as her others. But in the end, she did manage to make me feel for him.

    Vivienne: Hm... I'm afraid I've read it too long ago to remember.

    Jessi: I hope they enjoy it! I'd recommend Embroideries above this one, but I was glad to have read this too.

    Amy: It was :\

    Jill: Yes - I think sometimes the art allows for emotional nuances that might be hard to get across using writing alone. Blankets is a perfect example! Also, I definitely think that graphic novels ARE comics ("comics" being the name of the medium) but I don't think that's a bad thing at all :P

    Trish: Definitely not lighthearted! Embroideries, on the other hand, is quite funny.

    Stu: Isn't it? And it's the name of an actual Iranian dish. I kind of want to try it!

    Vishy: What you said about wanting to be the first to comment really made me smile :D It's interesting that you mentioned Buddhism, because I did feel the same kind of disconnect when reading about it. I haven't done a lot of in-depth research on it so it's possible that these are misconceptions, but the idea of letting go of my passions doesn't appeal to me at all. Serenity has its appeal, of course, but I love the fact that there are hundreds of silly little things that I get unreasonably excited about. It makes me feel alive.

    Amanda. That was such a sad scene :(

    ds: I particularly liked that the story showed all the little things that had contributed to Nasser Ali's despair, and also how in his turn he was hurting those who loved him. It's a terrible circle of hurt, but it was fascinating to read about.

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  29. I´m glad you enjoyed it as well :) And I agree that widening our emotional scope is something literature can do. And Nassar´s life and situation was so far removed from my own, I was happy that Satrapi made me empathize with him.

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  30. I loved this book when I read it last month. It was so different from Marjane Satrapi's other books, and I loved how my perspective of Nasser changed as I turned the last few pages.

    If you're interested, I had reviewed this book here.

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  31. I haven't read this one, but I read Persepolis last year and I just finished Embroideries. Despite the graphic format, her books all seem so very different. Embroideries had deep content, but it was also a kick to read, because I wasn't expecting all these older women to be so forthcoming about their sex lives!

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  32. I've enjoyed her other graphic novels and find that she's very talented. This one is now on my list to read at some time.

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  33. Oh this sounds great! I devoured the Persepolis books and wasn't aware she had wrote something else. Thanks!

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  34. I am definitely with you on the strangeness of the idea of simply giving up on life. I also admit to have had depression and have not once pondered about it, but then in the end, the thought just never makes much sense. I remember reading just very recently The Bell Jar, and I wonder at the normalcy of her life, as seen from outside, and yet inside, while she doesn't directly say it, the exhaustion of being is ominous.

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  35. I read this last fall, but when I wrote about it, it was included in a mini-review post with other books. The ending of this book did make me very sad.

    I've read all of her other graphic books also (pre blogging) and I'd have to agree with you that "Embroideries" have a lot of humor in it.

    Now I'm wondering what graphic books (I don't like using the term "novels" because so many of them are actually memoir-ish) have more humor in them because of the point brought up that most of them are so serious!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.