Of course the very afternoon I sat down and made a draft of my summer reading list, I ended up on my first guilty detour. But I’d just unpacked and nicely arranged my graphic books at the boyfriend’s parents’ place in Munich and Les Meilleurs Ennemis – bought more than a year ago – looked up at me beguilingly from a long line of books on the shelf, asking if I was ever going to get to it. I’d always been drawn to the book’s cover, with the Barbary pirate’s sweeping dagger-moustache and worldly tangerine red turban. Red, you quickly realise, because of the amount of bloodshed in this book.
Hardcover (120 pages)
Publisher: Futuropolis (France), SelfMadeHero (US)
Release date: 25 August 2011(France), 15 May 2012 (US)
Written by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Middle East expert and alumnus of Sciences Po (from which I’m finally graduating hey), and illustrated by David B., acclaimed graphic novelist best known for his harrowing autobiography L’Ascension du haut mal, the book is a tightly-packed graphic history lesson. It has been translated into English as Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953 (with a much less attractive cover). As you can probably guess from the title, this is no light read and borders on the academic. “An academic comic book?!” I hear you exclaim. Yes, the sort that is only possible in France.
David B. is the reason why I first picked up this book and also why I managed to finish it in one sitting. Dark, violent, surreal: these are beautiful conceptual illustrations that occasionally verge on the abstract but manage to carry the visual weight of the bloody history of two regions. Though no stranger to non-fiction, this has been the most political and grounded subject yet for David B., who usually delves into the dark matter of nightmares and unworldly associations in his stories. That influence is seen again here, with some intriguing images such as three-faced men and familiar haunting ones harking back to the Holocaust. His childhood obsession with Genghis Khan seems to have surged back into the pages, with incredible detail in numerous battle scenes. Unsurprisingly, he picked up an award for the art.
Told in four parts – (I) An old story, (II) Babary pirates, (III) Oil, (IV) Coup d’état – this book is the first instalment of an informative linear history of US-Middle East relations that begins with the parable of Gilgamesh’s destructive ambitions, drawing a horrific parallel with the human toll of the many conflicts spurred and prolonged by the US.
Sadly, that’s where the flow and poignancy of the storytelling ends. Filiu’s writing lacked true narrative power. The best academic writing can be absorbing and thought-provoking, but without an authorial voice driving it, Les meilleurs ennemis is a shipwreck of facts – years and characters follow one another without the barest thread of a story holding it altogether. I often felt like I was reading a series of history flashcards (albeit accompanied by great art). Many consecutive panels begin along the lines of “In 1816,” “In 1830,” “In 1805″… followed by a fact or an event with minimal narrative. Given Filiu’s manuscript, it makes you wonder at the effort David B. put into the book to make it come to life. The subject itself and the critical perspective (mainly of but not limited to the US) taken by this book holds so much promise for a deeply absorbing tale, but there is a painful lack of a storyteller here. I almost wish a journalist had taken on this project instead of an academic/intellectual.
But I’d still pick up the second volume. Though dense and staggered, Les meilleurs ennemis is an informative and worthwhile read. I was left with especially strong feelings over the retelling of the CIA’s involvement in Iran’s 1953 coup d’état. It still boggles me that a country that prides itself on defending democracy and liberty calculatedly ousted a democratically elected leader over oil interests. This book is likely to inform and enrage you over the incredible hypocrisy and hubris of US foreign policy, just be prepared to take your time when reading it.