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BOOK REVIEW

Examining a reason to live, in and beyond Iran

Nasser Ali Khan with his son Mozaffar, on a bus home after attempting to replace his broken tar, an Iranian lute. Nasser Ali Khan with his son Mozaffar, on a bus home after attempting to replace his broken tar, an Iranian lute. (ILLUSTRATION BY MARJANE SATRAPI)

Chicken With Plums, By Marjane Satrapi, Translated, from the French, by Anjali Singh, Pantheon, 84 pp., $16.95

Tehran, 1958 . A middle-age man walks down the street, sees a beautiful woman he thinks he recognizes, and approaches her. "You wouldn't be named Irane ?" he asks. "Yes!" she replies. "How do you know my name?" "You don't remember me?" he asks, surprised. "To tell the truth, not at all," she says. Disappointed, he excuses himself and walks away.

The man is Nasser Ali Khan , a famous tar player, and he is on his way to a music shop to find a replacement for his priceless Iranian lute , which his wife broke in one of the couple's notorious fights. The lutes that Nasser buys don't compare to the tar he lost and, completely dejected by his inability to produce the beautiful music that had given meaning to his life, he takes to bed and decides to let himself die. Eight days, later, he does.

Don't worry, I haven't given anything way.

"Chicken With Plums," Marjane Satrapi's newest graphic memoir, is the story of why her great-uncle, Nasser Ali Khan, an accomplished and respected musician, a beloved husband and father of four, should wish to die. In eight beguiling chapters, Satrapi depicts all the significant relationships of Nasser Ali's life -- with his mother, his brother, his wife, his children, and a few other unexpected characters -- culminating in that rarest of treats for today's reader: a satisfying ending.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to Satrapi's many dedicated fans that she has mined her family's rich history again. In "Persepolis," she told of her coming of age in Iran, during the Islamic Revolution and the long, bloody war with Iraq. In "Persepolis 2," she wrote of her teenage life in Austria, where her parents sent her so she could finish high school away from the constant harassments of the mullahs. In "Embroideries," she recounted an afternoon tea party at her grandmother's house, and used it to create an eye-opening portrait of sexual relations in modern-day Iran. Now she gives us the story of her great-uncle, turning it into a meditation on art and love, and the necessity of both to any life worth living.

Satrapi brings the character of Nasser Ali to life through her expert use of many different narrative techniques. In a flashback, for instance, she shows us Nasser Ali as a child, failing every subject at school, while his younger brother Abdi gets perfect grades. The teacher asks the students to applaud Abdi; and then, shockingly, he asks them to boo Nasser Ali. Unsurprisingly, Nasser turns to his music, at which, after many years of dedication and training, he excels. If that is taken away from him, what else is there to live for?

Satrapi also uses flash-forwards to great effect. She introduces us to Farzaneh , Nasser Ali's favorite child, and we are thus able to see whether his belief that their physical resemblance "proved the closeness of their souls" turns out to be true or not. In a dream sequence, we get a glimpse of Nasser Ali's frustrated sexual longings. There are also fables, legends, biblical stories, and quotes from the poets Rumi and Khayyam. And yet, Satrapi manages to make these digressions completely seamless and organic.

"Chicken With Plums," like previous volumes by Satrapi, was translated from the French by Anjali Singh, who is also a book editor. Singh captures the nuances of the author's words, finding idiomatic equivalents to many distinctively French expressions. Given the small number of literary translations published each year in the United States, one hopes we will see more efforts such as Singh's.

The book displays Satrapi's trademark style of simple, black-and-white drawings. As a comic artist, she is not known for the richness or precision of her artwork, but there is something about the childlike illustrations that serves to connect the reader to the story on a personal level, like reading the work of a friend. Satrapi's strength, however, remains her ability to tell a good story, using events from her familial history to teach us not just about life in Iran, but also out of it.

Laila Lalami is the author of "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits," now out in paperback.

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