Marjane Satrapi is the author of Persepolis, which made my expectations of Chicken with Plums a bit high. Happily, my expectations were met. We are treated to Satrapi’s black and white art, which always makes me think of wood cuts. She doesn’t need all the fancy bells and whistles; her stories are not bombastic or flashy. They are slices of life and intimate moments, and Chicken With Plums has plenty of both.
The story follows Nasser Ali Khan, a well-respected musician in the Tehran of 1958. He has made a decision. He is going to die. His wife has broken his tar, his children don’t revere him as much as he thinks they should, and he’s just plainly tired of living. So, Nasser retires to his bedchamber and refuses to leave.
In bed, he walks through his life courtesy of his memories. He evaluates the small moments that led him to his place in the world. He is visited several times. Nasser’s brother visits and the two stroll through their youth together. It becomes apparent that Nasser’s memory of his childhood is vastly different from his brother’s. Nasser remembers that his brother was loved and praised more. He remembers being told how much better his brother was. He pushes his brother away.
Nasser’s wife Nahid tries to get Nasser out of his funk by making his favourite meal: chicken with plums. However, when Nasser eats it, he says it tastes like dirt and spits his food out. He thinks of his life with Nahid and dwells on the notion that she wasn’t his first choice. The woman that Nasser wanted to be with, Irane, was out of his reach. Her father wouldn’t condone their marriage because Nasser was a musician. As such, Nasser eventually gave up courting Irane and settled for Nahid.
When Nahid broke Nasser’s tar, he stopped pretending to love her, eventually telling her that he never loved her.
Nahid is eventually visited by the Angel of Death. He learns that he succeeded in getting onto life’s off-ramp. There’s no turning back; soon, Nasser would be dead and there would be no more for him.
On Nasser’s last day, we learn what really made him give up on life. At the beginning of the story, Nasser runs across Irane. She no longer recognizes him. Nasser’s music was fueled by his love of Irane; the agony that he could not marry her was the wood that fueled the fire of his art. When she no longer recognized him, he realized that she no longer had the same feelings for him. The soul left his music, and without his music, his life was empty.
Nasser Ali Khan dies, and we see everyone that had known him (including Irane) present.
This comic got me to think about several things. I pondered the people that have helped shape my life, and I considered the pains and triumphs that help to fuel my art. It also encouraged me to make sure that I make the most of my time on earth. At one point, the Angel of Death quotes Omar Khayyam saying, “leave naught undone of what you have to do, for when you go, you will return no more.”
It is a monolithic sentence, black and looming. It is the only promise that life really can make.