The story of a return – Persepolis

Persepolis

I read Persepolis when I was 14. I lived in Spain and I went to my first Comic-Con – after begging my parents during days. Finally my father agreed to take my sister, my best friend and I to the place of the event. To be fair, it was quite far away from home, and he thought we wouldn’t  be safe in a place full of thousands of friquis – that’s how we call in Spain the people who like reading comics and manga, play videogames and watch Japanese animation.

We arrived and all that I wanted was merchandasing from Naruto or Death Note – back then, my favourite mangas. My dad picked Persepolis for me and bought it as a present thinking that if I wanted to read comincs at least should read a true graphic novel – the fancy word for comics for adults who don’t like to say they read comics.

I read it and loved. But I hadn’t understood it properly until last week, when I got the English translation – I bought the paperback version for 3 pounds in a charity shop.

This is the story of a young girl who recieves a liberal education – because educations one can have many, and some of them intend to send the brain to sleep instead of awake it – and lives in Iran after the Islamic Revoluti0n. What is this? Well, basically consists in closing universities, separating boys and girls in schools, making the veil compulsory… to sum up, applying all the –human interpreted – religious principles of Islam to the every day lives of Iran citizens.

Majarne – that is the name of the author and the main character, because Persepolis is a memoir – grows up reading Simone de Beauvoir, so you can imagine it’s very hard for her to accept the principles from the Islamic Revolution. Because she’s bilingual in French she can move out from the country during the war against Iraq to study her secondary education in the Licée Français in Vienna. Afterwards, she moves to Strasbourg at 23 to study graphic design. She never comes back to Iran.

French saved Majarne and allowed her to find a home in a place where her values and beliefs were not questioned. But, how many languages can one find in Persepolis?

Persian: A very ancient and unique language. It’s spoken in Iran and it’s Majarne’s first language. We can just find it when the characters curse each other. It’s as if she was suggesting that the visceral feelings of anger they are experienced cannot be translated – these feelings that are indeed a consequence of war and discrimination.

For instance, in a chapter called Pasta, a nun in the Catholic student accomodation where Majarne is staying suggests that she’s a thief as every other Iranian. She replies something in Persian – and for the way she’s screaming at the nun we can be sure it’s not something nice.

French: Majarne goes to a bilingual school as a child until the government shuts them all down saying that they promote a decadent education. Later she goes to the Licée Français is Vienna where she studies French culture. She currently lives in France and sometimes call herself a French artist.

German: In her years in Vienna – from 14 to 18 – Majarne has to learn German to communicate in her every day life. When she goes on holidays to the Tyrol – her roomate is from there – she encounters a special difficult accent.

English: Majarne’s teenage idols are all from the English speaking world – from Bruce Lee to Kim Wilde. As many of us, she cannot detach herself from the English speaking culture – music, cinema and so on. I feel English is a lingua franca because one can gain much more freedom by speaking it. English brings you access to a wider culture while allows you to communicate with people from all over the world. How could a language like this be out from Persepolis, which is indeed a story about gaining freedom?

Arabic: Iranian people have to study the religious texts in Arabic instead of in Persian. This is very demanding, and I guess not everyone undertands the prayers if they haven’t had time to study the language. It reminded me to those times when  mass was given in Latin in Spain. People had to seat in church for a long time – this was at the beginning to the 20th century, they listened to something that they knew it was important yet they couldn’t understand it. Is this a hidden form of opression? For some people, getting the bread home each day is a full-time task – they don’t necessarily have time to educate themselves. And learning a new language – as you probably now – is not easy. Acquiring another tongue is like planting a very rare kind of flower. Unless you take proper care of it it’s going to die. Almost everything can kill this flower so you’ve to make sure you are there to prevent it – everyday. Also, religion is suppose to create a sense of communion and bring people together. But a language one cannot understand can be the strongest barrier. Then, teaching people religion in another language might be a contradiction in itself…

persepolis-veil

Persepolis is a very good graphic novel. If you have left your home pursuing more freedom in life and choices, then you’re going to be identified with it. It’s also an iteresting story if you actually want to know more about Iran and its culture. And even if nothing of these specially appeals to you still go and read it, because this is a piece that will make you laugh even if talks about really dark stuff. I think it should be a classic…

Have you read it? Or watched the film? What do you think about it? Have you ever felt like a foreigner – even in your own country?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Switching languages to overcome trauma?

stationeleven

Viola had a harrowing story about riding a bicycle west out of the burnt-out ruins of a Connecticut suburb, aged fifteen, harboring vague notions of California but set upon by passersby long before she got there, grievously harmed, joining up with other half feral teenagers in a marauding gang and then slipping away from them, walking alone for a hundred miles, whispering French to herself because all the horror in her life had transpired in English and she thought switching languages might save her, wandering into a town through which the Symphony passed five years later.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

I read this book recently because it has been proposed for a Sci-Fi reading group I’m attending to next week. I’m currently writing a Sci-Fi novella – it’s in very early stages, shitty draft, as we call it – and because it’s my first time doing such thing I feel the need of surrounding myself of much ‘Sci-Fi-ness’ as possible. I admit I haven’t read that much Sci-Fi anyways – the Foundation series are a favourite of mine though, and films like Sunshine and Interstellar have inspired me a lot. Thing is, I always thought you had to know about science to write it – but apparently not, if you try ‘Soft Sci-Fi’. So there we go!

Station Eleven turned out to be a really addictive book that I devoured in a few days. The writing is very fluid and cinematographic. My previous readings had been Breakfast on Pluto – quite experimental – and Reading in the Dark – I found it very dramatic – so I must say that Emily’s prose felt kind of a relief.

The story starts when the Georgian Flu – why illnesess always come from places like Eastern Europe? I’m actually surprised it doesn’t come from Spain… – ends with almost the whole Earth population. I’m – slightly? – hypochondriac so reading about how the pandemia’s spread scared me quite a bit.

The characters are alright but I didn’t feel particullarly interested in Arthur Leander, the character who serves as a link to all the stories in the plot. I found the female character of Miranda – a Graphic Novels illustrator whose work gives name to the novel – way more fascinating.

The end felt a bit sudden but yet reasonably satisfactory for me. I felt the story didn’t focus as much in the post-acpocalyptic world as I would have liked to though – the plot has the potential to be much more longer, I think.

What I found really fascinating is what happened to Viola, a secondary character with a minor role in the end. If you were to suffer an extreme trauma, would you switch languages to overcome it? I associate Spanish with the country were I was born, with my family, with my childhood memories… If I wanted to forget all this things for whatever the reason, would the language have to go as well? Until what extreme are words connected to feelings the same way senses – as hearing or smelling – can trigger memories?

I tried to do a bit of research about this online and found about the Foreign Accent Syndrome, which is not at all the same thing but still is also very interesting.

What are your thoughts about this?

Bawn Gorno! How not knowing Italian (or any other language) can kill you.

Inglorious Basterds

Bridget von Hammersmark: I know this is a silly question before I ask it, but can you Americans speak any other language besides English?

I start thinking that Tarantino has something with languages. After watching Inglorious Basterds for the third time I had came with two conclusions. It’s too violent. And not being at least bilingual in a Tarantino film… is not cool.

We’re in the Second World War, in the Nazi occupation in France. You might have thought that the characters are going to die because they are trapped in a shooting or they are tortured by the Gestapo. But not. Linguistic mistakes… that’s what really kills them.

Lieutenant Archie Hicox – played by the handsome Michael Fassbender. He’s a Scottish solider and critic of German films. He speaks a wonderful German but, like most of us – second language speakers – he’s not free from the curse of accent. A Gestapo official finds him immediately suspicious because he cannot identify from which part of German Hicox’s accent comes from… Hicox’s final mistake is to mark the number in the English – and not German – way. Again, something to remember for all language students… you also need to have some basic cultural knowledge to survive in a foreign country!

Lt. Aldo Raine: Well, I speak the most Italian, so I’ll be your escort. Donowitz speaks the second most, so he’ll be your Italian cameraman. Omar speaks third most, so he’ll be Donny’s assistant.

Pfc. Omar Ulmer: I don’t speak Italian.

Lt. Aldo Raine: Like I said, third best. Just keep your fuckin’ mouth shut. In fact, why don’t you start practicing, right now!

Lieutenat Aldo Raine, Sergeant Donowitz and Private First Class Omar Ulmer blow up their covers because – despite of what they say – they cannot speak a single convincing word in Italian. One of the funniest scenes in the film is when Aldo Raine – Brad Pitt – pronounces ‘Bon Giorno‘ in the stronges American accent possible…

The Dreyffus family – French Jews – die because they cannot understand English. If they had done so, they would have listened Colonel Landa’s wicked plan and – perhaps – could have escaped before being massacred by a bunch of Nazis.

Colonel Landa – the most disgusting Nazi in the film. His wickedness lies in the fact he seems able to speak all languages –  German, English, French, Italian… and I’m sure he also speaks Spanish or Chinese but he didn’t have the chance to show it in the film. Although – no worries – he also makes mistakes from time to time.

Col. Hans Landa: [giddy] Oooh, that’s a bingo! Is that the way you say it? “That’s a bingo?”

Lt. Aldo Raine: You just say “bingo.”

Col. Hans Landa: Bingo! How fun! But, I digress. Where were we?

Sargent Wilhem. A German soldier who speaks very good English. This buys him a couple of extra life minutes and a longest scene in the flim – compared with her fellow German soldiers. But because Tarantino is the director, he also had to die in a blood explosion, of course.

Master SGT. Wilhelm: Who are you? British, American? What?

Lt. Aldo Raine: We’re American! What’re you?

Master SGT. Wilhelm: I’m a German, you idiot!

Lt. Aldo Raine: You speak English pretty good for a German.

Master SGT. Wilhelm: I agree.

Has a foreign language ever saved your life?

Words like bullets in the Wild West

django-unchained-poster

Dr. King Schultz: I wish to parlez with you.

Dicky Speck: Speak English.

Dr. King Schultz: Oh, I’m sorry, please forgive me. It is a second language.

You don’t need to speak perfect English to be cool. You just need a good eye for shooting, a carriage with a giant tooth on top and of course, Tarantino must write your dialogues. Do you know who I’m talking about?

Dr Schultz is my favourite character in the 2012 Tarantino film Django Unchained. One of the main reasons for this is the astonishing performance of his actor, Cristoph Waltz, who played the SS colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds – did you watch it? I will make an article about it soon. I think Tarantino fell –understandably – in love with this actor, because he always gives him the best lines in his films – I suspect he made the German character of Dr Schultz just because he wanted to film Waltz again.

Dr Schultz comes from the land of Beethoven, beer – he introduces Django to it – and The Song of Nibelungs – that partially inspired The Lord of the Rings and also resembles Django’s real life. Somehow Dr Schultz ended up in the Wild West where he makes a living as a bounty hunter. What define this character is his love for killing people – although he focus only on the bad guys – and for language. Apart from German he can he can also speak French and English –the latter better than most of the characters in the film, who are mainly slave traders. You can tell from the beginning he likes playing with words as much as with guns. For example, when Dr Schultz and Django are trapped in Daughtrey –right after Dr Schultz killed the sheriff every single living soul in this little town is pointing their guns at them – Dr Schultz’s smart speech not only saves their lives but also makes them rich.

Language is not only Dr Schultz’s way of getting what he wants. Tarantino also uses it to introduce some comedy.

Dr. King Schultz: [aiming .45-70 rifle at fleeing Ellis Brittle] You sure that’s him?

Django: Yeah.

Dr. King Schultz: Positive?

Django: I don’t know.

Dr. King Schultz: You don’t know if you’re positive?

Django: I don’t know what ‘positive’ means.

Dr. King Schultz: It means you’re sure.

Django: Yes.

Dr. King Schultz: Yes, what?

Django: Yes, I’m sure that’s Ellis Brittle.

[Schultz shoots Brittle off his horse]

Django: I’m positive he dead.

Opposite to Dr Schutlz – who kills people but has a moral we can identify with, as he is against slavery – there is Calvin Candie. He is not just bad, but completely crazy. He enjoys violence – he uses his slaves to fight as if they were dogs and if they don’t satisfy him he feeds them to the dogs themselves. In order to appear sophisticated he pretends to speak French – and makes people call him ‘Monsieur Candie’. But this is a mere facade as Candie knows as much about French as about human empathy.

Dr. King Schultz: Anything else about Mr. Candie I should know about before I meet him?

Leonide Moguy: Yes, he is a bit of a francophile. Well, what civilized people aren’t? And he prefers ‘Monsieur Candie’ to ‘Mr Candie’.

Dr. King Schultz: Si c’est cela qu’il préfère.

[Whatever he prefers]

Leonide Moguy: He doesn’t speak French. Don’t speak French to him, it’ll embarrass him.

I will add that this is one of Leonardo Di Caprio’s best roles. From the very first minute he appeared on screen I wanted to take one of Dr Schutltz’s guns and put a bullet in his head – I am normally a very pacific person who would never kill a spider, even if it is very disgusting.

Language also saves Broomhilda, Django’s lover.

Dr. King Schultz: [in disbelief] Let me get this straight: Your slave wife speaks German and her name is Broomhilda von Schaft?

Django: Yep.

Raised by a German mistress, her knowledge of this language makes her a ‘home slave’ so she doesn’t have to work in the plantation. She is kept as a rarity by her owners. In the end, this unique characteristic is what allows Dr Schultz and Django to find her. It also gives Broomhilda a perfect opportunity to speak with Dr Schultz to plan her escape without anyone else understanding. Do you see? The more languages you know in this film the more chances you have of not turning into a blood bomb – seriously, have you noticed how people seem to explode in blood every time they get shot?

Maybe when you don’t learn a language as a native you become more aware of its complexity. It happens to me in English that I usually have to think about every word I write. In the end, the editing of my texts is more exhaustive and I feel they are closer to what I initially intended to express with them. On the other hand, in Spanish I’m usually way more relaxed – speaking my mother tongue is like wearing my old trainers, it’s so comfortable that I don’t bother about how they look anymore.

So next time you’re struggling with your second language, don’t focus on the accent or the – unavoidable – grammatical mistakes. Think about Dr Schultz and how he uses words as if they were bullets. Communicating in a different language in a different country can be challenging and a bit like going around the Wild West. So you don’t want your words to be necessarly perfect but quick. That’s important to survive.

Want to learn a bit of German today? Here you get one last scene from
Django where you can learn about the meaning of Auf Wiedersehen.

Auf Wiedersehen and see you next Tuesday!