20 March, 2012

Review: Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

If the art doesn't overcome reader objection to the source material is it the fault of the art or the reader? Chicken With Plums is getting rave reviews as a film so I thought I'd check the source material out. As always, Satrapi has a beautiful approach to her tale. A few of the art panels (our main character ruminating on Sophia Loren, for example) are exceptional. Her ear for multi-generational family dynamics is solid. The difficulty I have while reading Chicken With Plums is my absolute loathing for the main character.

Satrapi is telling a fictionalized version of a true tale. Her great uncle, Nassar Ali Khan, suffers a disappointment in life and wills himself to die. Satrapi walks a fine line here. One one side of the coin she wants the reader to engage with and feel for Nassar. On the other, he's a terrible human being. He's not evil, he's a self involved child. The reader is told fairly early that he's going to die and I was completely okay with that outcome. At no point did I find it tragic, at no point did I wish he could have a happier ending. Nassar decides to give up on life and I think "Well, okay. That's fine." I don't think that's the reaction I was supposed to have. On the sympathy side, Nassar was estranged from his family, obsessed with a woman he could not have. His only solace in life was his music. Eventually, that is denied him. (Or he chooses to deny it to himself. It's a matter for debate.) Obviously, Nassar is a deeply depressed man. He is probably chemically depressed and all the other things one would have to be to lie down one morning and decide never to get back up.

He's still a self indulgent child who completely shafted his family. Once, decades ago, he was denied the woman he wanted. Therefore he makes another woman suffer. Once, decades ago, his mother didn't favor him. So he chooses not to favor his own son. I don't buy that there is always a golden child, that for every Abel a Cain is required. These are choices we make as people. If the story of Nassar had been told from another viewpoint I would have felt more sympathy for him. Unfortunately the unloved son isn't treated well in the book either. He is disparaged for his weight, the weight of his eventual children, and the perceived lack of moral fiber in Nassar's granddaughter. Is this to say Nassar was right? To somehow justify his poor parenting? I couldn't get behind it.

Satrapi does a beautiful job of showing the tragedy of Nassar being lost in youthful dreams and refusing (or being unable) to create a satisfying life with the woman and children he had. His wife is the catalyst for his decision to die, but can we blame her? I spent only a few pages with Nassar yet I was willing to drive him over the edge. Chicken With Plums may be slow in places but the tale it tells definitely has punch. If it's the punch the author intended, I can't say. I don't think I will seek the movie out. Nassar and I, we just don't get along.


  1. I had a similar response. I drank the Persephone Kool-Aid, I thought Embroideries was even better, then this.

    My reader side was saying "Why would I want to read about this person with whom I wouldn't want to chat at a party?" My feminist side was saying "Marjane, don't we get enough men's stories? Really, is that your job?"


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