Pantheon Books has just released a new paperback version of Marjane Satrapi’s Chicken With Plums, originally released in hardcover in 2006.
This is terrible news.
Well, for me, anyway. See, I already have that hardcover version. And then the softcover arrived in the mail. Surely I don’t need two versions of the same book, and, for bookshelf sake’s space if nothing else, I should probably get rid of one of them. And therein lies the problem.
Which one should I keep, and which should I lose? The hardcover is slightly taller and slightly wider, so the pages are a little bigger. And, by virtue of being a hardcover, it’s more likely to last longer, and stand up to being packed in boxes and moved from shelf to shelf or lent to friends.
On the other hand, I like the cover design of the new one so much better.
The hardcover had a dust jacket with a garish, neon-ish orange on it, and a cut out portion revealing the mysterious image of darkened, silhouette of a man carrying a case for a musical instrument, and looking more like a gangster or a spy than anything else. The softcover is all purple, black and white, and features a medium shot image of the protagonist, Nasser Ali Khan, seated below a tree and playing his tar, his face inscrutable. It matches the design of the 2006 paperback release of Embroideries, and will look better standing on a shelf next to it.
Oh man, I don’t know what to do about this two-copies-of-Chicken With Plums issue!
The new release isn’t all bad news though. Anyone who might have missed the original release—and considering Satrapi’s Persepolis movie came out in 2007, elevating her and her work to the next plateau of recognition, that’s probably a lot of folks— now has a second chance to hear about what may be her very best work.
Satrapi’s comics aren’t competing with one another, of course, and I wouldn’t say that this is her most important work, but it is the furthest removed from her personal life and personal narrative, and therefore the book seems like a greater work of invention.
It’s not completely divorced from the artist, however. She makes a brief appearance, and narrates portions of it. Nasser Ali Khan was her great uncle, and this is his story, presumably greatly embellished, with the Satrapi’s narration only coming into play when explaining things that happened after his death.
The art work is not significantly different than that which Satrapi provided on her earlier projects. It is still black and white and still simplified to the point that it looks like some characters and panels were applied with to the paper with stamps rather than drawn lines. There’s still a remarkable amount of character design variety given the simplicity, everyone still wears black at all times.
The story opens with Nasser Ali Khan walking down a street in Tehran in 1958, and stopping a woman walking in the opposite direction, thinking she was someone he knew.
Nasser Ali is a musician, and he is in town to try and replace his tar, the string instrument he mastered and has played all his life, which his wife had just broken in a fit of anger.
Unable to find a tar which sounds and feels the way his original one was, by page 17 we are told, “Nasser Ali Khan decided to die.”
The rest of the book is divided into eight days chronicling the last days of his life. Having contemplated various forms of suicide, he ultimately decides it best to simply lay in bed and wait for death to come for him.
Before it does, many other things do. His brother, his sister, his wife and his children all visit him at different points, to try to talk him out of bed and, in some cases, remind him why he’s there. He’s visited by Sophia Loren, and Azrael the angel of death. We learn how some of his children turn out in the far future through flashforwards, and we learn how and why he became such a talented musician and how he came to marry and have the kids he had through flashbacks.
Like Satrapi’s other works, Chicken With Plums provides a charming and welcome picture of Iran as a real place full of real people (something most of us rarely see) and plenty of strong characters that are in turns tragic and funny, because of who they are, depending on the situation.
It’s also achingly romantic and devastatingly heartbreaking, a mystically charged work of family mythology that is made universal by how personal it is. Like I said, I don’t think this is Satrapi’s most important work, but, in addition to perhaps being her best, it is by farm my personal favorite.