Marjane Satrapi’s work, honest and visceral, usually focuses on politics and society’s impact herself and those she loves. In the autobiographical Persepolis she reflects on the way the Islamic Revolution changed the course of her childhood. In Embroideries she studies the damaging repercussions unfair societal expectations have on Iranian women’s sexuality.
In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi steps away from the spotlight and shines it on her great uncle Nasser Ali Khan. Primarily, the last eight days of his life.
Tehran, 1958. In a fit of rage, Nasser’s wife, Nahid, destroys his beloved tar, a stringed musical instrument similar to a sitar. He fails to find one that fits him as well as his original. Realizing that his days of creating music are over, he takes to his bed and waits to die.
Of course, no one believes that a young healthy man could simply retire to bed and die. His friends and relatives visit, attempting to cheer him up, unaware of the seriousness of his mental state. As he lies in bed, he reflects on his past, his choices and his contributions to the world. Towards the end of his life he sees terrifying visions of the Angel of Death, but still longs to die.
On the surface, Nasser comes across as punitive and melodramatic. He rebukes Nahid’s apologetic offering of his favorite food, chicken with plums. He stubbornly rejects friends and family’s attempt to remind him of the good parts of his life. He seems like a sullen teenager sulking in his room. In fact, Chicken with Plums major weakness is the unlikable main character.
However, as one digs deeper and applies 2019 understanding to 1958 actions, we know this isn’t about the tar. From his early childhood, unhappiness has been like a heavy wool coat draped around Nasser’s shoulders. The final act that pushes him over the edge isn’t just a slight, it’s the belief that the happiest times of his life meant nothing to the person who means the most to him. It’s the death of any chance at happiness. Having withstood the initial crushing disappointment year earlier, Nasser’s life has been little more than biding his time until death.
Drawn in Satrapi’s signature harsh black and white and told in her cheeky voice, Chicken With Plums imagines Nasser’s final week as he makes peace with his choice. She doesn’t paint him as a saint or hero, just a man who had his reasons.