Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2101
AUTHOR: Satrapi, Marjane
ARTIST: Marjane Satrapi (illustrator)
PUBLISHER: L’Association (French); Pantheon Books (English)
FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: Poulet aux prunes, 2004 (English translation, 2006)
Following the success of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003) and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (2004) and Embroideries (2005), which tells the stories of the women in Satrapi’s life, Satrapi decided to relate the tale of her great-uncle, one of Iran’s most famous musicians. His story, Chicken with Plums, was originally published in French in 2004 as Poulet aux prunes by L’Association. The book was translated into English by Anjali Singh in 2006 and published by Pantheon Books. It was reprinted by Pantheon in 2009.
Chicken with Plums is the story of the last eight days of Nasser Ali Khan, one of Iran’s most revered players of the tar (an Iranian lute). After his tar is broken, he cannot find a replacement and decides to go to bed and wait to die. Following the introduction of Nasser’s situation, the narrative is structured as Nasser’s final eight days. During these days, Nasser rests in bed, and the story flashes back, telling of his life and lost love, Irane, then flashes forward, showing the lives of his children and relatives in the future.
As it unfolds, the narrative reveals that, as a young adult, Nasser was in love with a wealthy beauty, Irane, but was forbidden from marrying her because of his dubious career as a musician. Desolate after losing Irane, he pours his love into his music, eventually marrying an adoring neighborhood girl, Nahid, at the urging of his mother, even though he does not love her.
Over the years, he becomes more and more selfish, doing little for his wife and family. Eventually, Nahid breaks his tar, angry at his lack of family responsibility. After Nasser’s lapse into depression, Nahid makes chicken with plums, Nasser’s favorite dish, in hopes of reconciling with her husband and lifting his spirits. He cannot forgive her and reiterates that he never loved her.
As he is walking to find a replacement instrument, Nasser happens upon Irane in the street. She claims she does not know him, and Nasser is heartbroken again. Depressed by Irane’s rejection and his inability to replace his tar, Nasser decides life is not worth living, and he eventually passes away on the eighth day. The final images in the book are of Nasser’s funeral and of the angel of death, Azrael.
•Nasser Ali Khan is Satrapi’s uncle and an exceptional musician. A handsome man with dark hair and a moustache, he is moody and selfish.
•Irane is the daughter of a prosperous merchant and is Nasser’s true love. She is particularly beautiful, with deep, almond-shaped eyes; a bob haircut; and a beauty mark on her cheek. She wears a stylish white hat and a fur coat. She returns Nasser’s affection, but her father forbids them to marry. In Tehran, many years later (1958), she encounters Nasser on the street. She is still fashionably dressed, with high-heeled boots and a scarf, and looks much the same but for a few wrinkles.
•Nahid, Nasser’s wife, is a teacher. She wears glasses and severe, shapeless dark dresses. She is depicted as stern and angry. She has been in love with Nasser since she was eight, when she acted as a messenger for him, delivering letters to a girl he admired. After Irane breaks Nasser’s heart, Nahid visits him frequently, bringing small gifts. Nasser’s mother encourages him to marry Nahid. After four children and many years of taking care of all the needs of the household, Nahid breaks Nasser’s tar in a fit of rage after Nasser forgets to take their son to the doctor.
•Azrael, a.k.a. the Angel of Death, visits Nasser on the sixth day and on the eighth and final day. He is a shadowy, dark figure with horns—all black except for the white outline of his nose, eyes, and mouth. He is surprisingly jovial, laughing with Nasser, despite his mission. He also appears at the funeral scene, gazing in Irane’s direction.
•Abdi, Nasser’s younger brother, tries to lift his brother out of his depression by encouraging him to go see the film Woman of the River (also known as The River Girl, 1954), starring Sophia Loren. He has short hair, glasses, and a concerned expression. A flashback reveals that he excelled in school, while his brother failed. Nasser chastises him for becoming a communist and going to jail, leaving his family behind.
•Farzaneh is Nasser’s favorite child. She resembles her father, and Nasser takes this as an indication of their special bond. She is a sweet-looking child, with pigtails and a round face. In a flashback, Nasser laments that his gift to her of pink sandals was not appropriate for the season, and Nahid chides him for his frivolous purchase. On the fifth day of his time in bed, Nasser assumes it is Farzaneh who is praying for him and keeping him alive. As an adult, she marries and divorces an actor and smokes profusely. She greets Satrapi and her mother while playing cards, smoking furiously. As an adult woman, she has a sleek bob haircut and wears a low-cut blouse. She dies shortly after Satrapi and her mother visit.
•Mozaffar is the youngest of Nasser’s children and his least favorite. He is loquacious, overweight, and uninterested in art and music and does not look at all like his father. He is depicted with a round face and eyes and a wide smile. He is the only child to pray for his father. A flash-forward reveals that he married a woman named Gila in 1975 and had three children. In 1979, he worked as a manager in the army, but after the war broke out in 1980, the family settled in the United States.
•Mina, one of the oldest of Nasser’s children, has a long nose and a bobbed haircut. She assists her mother when asked.
•Reza, another of Nasser’s children, rarely appears.
•Nasser’s mother favors her younger son, Abdi. In old age, she asks Nasser to stop praying for her so that she might die. She smoked continuously leading up to her death, and there is an enormous cloud of smoke around her body when she dies.
•Marjane Satrapi is the great-niece of Nasser and is the narrator of the story. However, she only makes a brief appearance in the actual narrative, when she goes with her mother to visit her aunt Farzaneh. Satrapi is pictured with long black hair and a small beauty mark on her nose.
•Taji, Satrapi’s mother, goes to visit her cousin Farzaneh in 1998. She has close-cropped white hair and wrinkles. She scolds Farzaneh for smoking.
•Mirza owns a music store and tries to sell Nasser a new tar on numerous occasions. However, Nasser is never satisfied with any of the instruments and calls Mirza a charlatan. He is a kindly, solid man, depicted with a round face, short hair, a mustache, and glasses, and patiently tries to please the irritated Nasser until the latter insults his father.
•Housang sells tars, among other things, including opium. He sells Nasser a new tar at an outrageous price and gives Nasser and Mozaffar opium. Housang has a long nose and deep, dark circles under his eyes.
•Parvine, Nasser’s sister, appears only as a silhouette at the door to Nasser’s room. She thanks Nasser for his support during her divorce and pledges her love and gratitude.
Satrapi is well known for her stark, black-and-white color scheme and the thick, dark lines of her drawing style, as popularized in her memoirs Persepolis: A Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: A Story of Return. Although her drawing technique has advanced somewhat over her career, her style has changed very little. Her figures are simply drawn, with few background details; the scenes are reminiscent of woodcuts or block prints. The figures are bold and minimally rendered with thick lines, bringing each character’s facial expressions into sharp focus. Backgrounds are generally sparse, drawing attention to individual figures.
Satrapi sometimes uses traditional borders between panels but occasionally abandons the borders altogether. The strips generally follow a fairly traditional format of three panels per each of the three rows on a page. At times, Satrapi deviates from this format to emphasize a particular scene or moment.
The narrative text, written from Satrapi’s point of view, and text within speech balloons are lettered in straightforward capital letters. Panels and words are spaced evenly, without being overcrowded or packed too much into any one frame or page. Satrapi’s simple, unadorned style of drawing and lettering and her black-and-white color scheme reinforce the dualistic themes of good and bad, guilt and innocence, love and hate, and life and death that permeate the text. Satrapi’s blunt style also reflects her childlike point of view as she narrates the story, looking back and forward through time.
While Satrapi is known primarily for her autobiographical memoirs, in Chicken with Plums she moves beyond her own personal story to consider the life story and development of another family member. Chicken with Plums has many themes. It is a story of lost love, family relationships, and resignation and loss. It also echoes the form of the Künstlerroman, the story of an artist’s development, as the plot chronicles not only Nasser’s personal life but also his career as a musician.
The book also functions in the form of a mystery; while Nasser’s death is clear from the outset, the source of his sadness and exactly how the tar was broken are only revealed as the story progresses. The text explores the value of one man’s life and the reasoning behind his decision to end it. Chicken with Plums asks the reader to consider both what aspects of life make it worth living and what one might do in the face of lost love.
Nasser’s story resonates for those who have lost love, and the black-and-white colors, coupled with the unadorned figures, emphasize that this is a story of life-and-death decisions. Nasser refuses to dwell in the margins or in the grayness of a life half-lived, choosing to die when he loses his music and his great love. The book serves to universalize and humanize the experience of love gone wrong, setting an archetypal story within Iran during the 1950’s.
Chicken with Plums, along with Satrapi’s other works, joins the growing trend of personal autobiographical and biographical narratives being told through the form of comic art, which includes Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), and Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons (2000-2001). Like many autobiographical comic-art endeavors, its realism is emphasized through the flaws of each character, by citing specific dates and historical events, and by introducing elements of storytelling into the plot of the narrative. Satrapi’s work continues to draw readers to the genre of graphic memoir, and as the result of its appealing style and the intriguing moral issues that it addresses, Chicken with Plums garnered good reviews.
While Chicken with Plums did not make as much of an impact commercially or critically as Persepolis or Persepolis 2, the book was well received and expanded Satrapi’s oeuvre, looking beyond her personal autobiography. It also introduces Satrapi’s interest in a narrative with a male protagonist, whereas her earlier efforts focused on female experience.
- Chicken with Plums. Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. uFilm/Celluloid Dreams Productions/Studio Babelsberg, 2011. A live-action film version of Chicken with Plums, starring Isabella Rossellini and Mathieu Amalric. Satrapi wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud.
- Barry, Lynda. One Hundred Demons (2000-2001).
- Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home:A Family Tragicomic (2006).
- Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003).
- _______. Persepolis 2: A Story of Return (2004).
- Davis, Rocio. “A Graphic Self: Comics as Autobiography in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Prose Studies 27, no. 3 (2007): 264-279.
- Naghibi, Nimi, and Andrew O’Malley. “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” English Studies in Canada 31, nos. 2-3 (June/September, 2005): 223-247.
- Satrapi, Marjane. “Interview with Marjane Satrapi.” Interview by Robert L. Root. Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 9, no. 2 (Fall, 2007): 147-157.
- Tensuan, Theresa. “Comic Visions and Revisions in the Work of Lynda Barry and Marjane Satrapi.” Modern Fiction Studies 52, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 948-964.
Chicken with PlumsCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents & Underground Classics Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press