Read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi?
How about picking up another of her equally insightful and somberly black and white illustrated graphic novel, called, Chicken with Plums?
The musician Nasser Ali Khan’s favourite tar (an Iranian percussion instrument) is broken. He probably had the best one in the world. Now that it is broken, he goes on a search for an equally matched tar. But after failing to find such a one despite his repeated attempts, he consigns himself to a state where he simply only wishes to die.
The protagonist being a renowned musician having deep questions about his art and his life makes this novel part of The Book Cafe’s series called, Musically Yours!
While Nasser Ali Khan waits to die, he reminisces about his past: his childhood- his conflicts with his brother and mother, all the missed opportunities in his love life, his past love affairs, how he married his current wife, his immense love for his daughter, his almost cruel unconscious rejection of his son who ironically is the one who prays for Nasser’s life and many more anecdotes come to his mind while he waits for his ultimate death.
Each day, until his death, is sketched in great detail where we see his past and his future in a way, where we see the myriad vignettes from his well lived life! The angel of death, Azrael, himself visits Nasser, and narrates his own anecdote about how he meets people who are destined to die, even those who have decided to commit suicide.
The story starts and ends with the same incident that make the ending a poignant, heart wrenching one that suggests how life can twist and turn and what it means to have a cruel fate!
Chicken with Plums brings to mind so many questions:
What is the purpose of life? Can one decide to die? How much of life is decided by others? How much of one’s life is coincidence?
While others may ponder about the importance of art to the artist. How can they live by detaching themselves from their art? Is it possible for the artist to give priority to anything else other than art? Which is more important-art or happiness? Do they both have to be separate or can they be interlinked? What is more important-practicing your art or living your life? Or are they both separate entities?
Some may even have lingering thoughts about the general perception of an artist as a poor or misunderstood genius? Is that simply a popular stereotype or are all artists bound by some invisible social norms?
One thought that struck me is that how the idea of a mad genius cuts across cultures and that how it is the privileged male who is given that trait and how it is the women in their lives who sacrifice so much so that their spouses can pursue their artistic interests.
Sexism much? Of course!
Women are considered artistic geniuses only if they fulfil their traditional roles and then somehow find time to produce works of art. Whereas men are given the space to be who they are and they shamelessly stand on the sexist division of society where women are expected to be selfless and slavish to the artistic demands of the male artist. This is also the case in this graphic novel and thus, for me, the real tragic hero in Chichen with Plums, is not Nasser Ali Khan, but the almost invisible and completely unacknowledged, Nahid, Nasser Ali Khan’s wife.
We know how she fell in love with Nasser and how she broke his tar and how she lives her life in complete drudgery after her marriage to Nasser, while he carries on his artistic pursuits on her back without any courtesy to acknowledge her efforts.
Yet it is Nasser Ali Khan’s love for his beloved tar that is eulogised and how he could not live without it once it was broken and couldn’t bear to play anything else, which only produced, according to him, inferior sounds. All we know is that the blame for the broken tar is justifiably put on Nahid without really going into the mental trauma that she faced. Whereas Nasser Ali Khan’s artistic qualities and his complete detachment from his new, unworthy tars are focused on, along with how he missed out on marrying the love of his life, how his greatest regret was not marrying her and how he eagerly waits for death to free him from his many regrets.
While Chicken with Plums would qualify as a brilliant unconventional kunstlerroman (unconventional because it is not chronological. We see Nasser Ali Khan’s development as an artist but not simply in a linear fashion), what I would love to read is the story from Nahid’s point of view as well.
Is Marjane Satrapi, through Nasser Ali, not only shining a historical torch on the 1950s’ and 1960s’ Iran but also laying bare the sexism of the art world?
We may not be sure, but the illustrations and the non linear narrative technique with the use of its many flashbacks and jumps into the future, make Chicken with Plums, a breezy yet complex read.
To end, I want to ask you, where do the chickens come in in this graphic novel?
My title fetish strikes again!
Chicken with Plums is named after his favourite dish that his mother used to cook for him.