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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.

les meilleurs ennemis

Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953

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. 

Using Gilgamesh as a parable for US foreign policy

Using Gilgamesh (middle panel) as a parable for US foreign policy

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.

meilleurs_ennemis_extrait

Oil pipes snake through this chapter as a visual narrative device

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It took a month to get back into the rhythm of working on my long-form on suicides in France. Partly because I’ve had a mountain of work at the school of international affairs. Partly because this is a topic I find myself avoiding once I’m out of the correct frame of mind. I’m reminded of what suicide hotline volunteer Fabienne Leonhart said about needing a “solid psychological state”. I certainly didn’t sense it was wise to get into the thick of it while warring through papers and finals, in despair over the long Parisian winter.

April hasn’t been a complete loss, however. I touched base with blogger and train conductor Cédric Gentil (more on my project blog) and on his recommendation, I picked up a new read called Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino, a well-known French journalist and former editor of Le Monde. “It’s about his encounters with suicides on the RER A, which runs just behind his house,” said Gentil, who himself operates the RER A. “I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Here’s my two cents on the book:

Suite à un accident grave de voyageur by Éric Fottorino

« Suite à un accident grave de voyageur »

By: Éric Fottorino
Collection Blanche, Gallimard
Published : 28-02-2013

At 63 pages, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur is a slim but incredibly dense read. The title takes after the detached and euphemistic announcement issued by French transport authorities when a suicide attempt has occurred on the tracks: “Following the serious accident of a passenger…”. The book begins with Fottorino’s shocking discovery that three suicide attempts occurred on the RER A within a month. The RER A is a subway line linking Paris into the suburbs and carries one the world’s highest volume of passengers at 1.2 million a day. As a resident in the suburbs of Yvelines, Fottorino takes the train to Paris nearly everyday and lives close enough to the station that he can hear the rumble of the tracks and the muffled blare of announcements.

En septembre 2012, à quelques jours de distance, trois personnes se sont jetées sur les voies du RER, derrière chez moi, dans les Yvelines. Un vieillard, une mère de famille, un homme qui n’a pu être identifié. À la violence de leur mort a répondu le silence. Il ne s’est rien passé. Nul n’a désigné la souffrance par son nom. Une voix neutre a seulement résonné dans les haut-parleurs de la gare : “Suite à un accident grave de voyageur…” Nos vies ont pris un peu de retard. À cause de trois détresses qui n’ont jamais existé.

(my amateur translation) In September 2012, within days of each other, three people threw themselves onto the tracks of the RER behind my house in the Yvelines. An old man, a mother, and an unidentified man. In response to the violence of their death was silence. Nothing happened. Nothing called out suffering by its name. Only a neutral voice resonating from the speakers of the train station : “Following the serious accident of a passenger…” Our lives took a brief delay. As a result of three incidents of distress that never existed.

A strong bout of curiosity driven by what I suspect was a mix of good journalistic sense and literary compassion sent him on an investigation into the identities of these suicides, spurring a thoughtful essay on what their deaths and collective indifference towards them are saying about modern French society. It is a deeply localised perspective, and seems less intended for the general franco-français than the Parisian urbanite who is already well-acquainted with metaphors of the subway and the city. It is, to some extent, navel-gazing, and I’m not sure if the publishing equivalent of Gallimard in the anglophone world would have taken on a book like this. A highbrow indie mag like n+1, perhaps.

Yet the introspection is well done. What follows is a poetic, despairing exposition of what Fottorino describes as modern isolation and the unwillingness to acknowledge suffering for what it is. Gentil was one of the people contacted by Fottorino in the research for his book, but the prevailing voice is Fottorino’s. His words have an expressive authority, and with his sober and compassionate tone, the result is a beautiful and pained meditation on society’s reaction towards these suicides.

For example, Fottorino laments the clinical neutrality and austere word-limit devoted to suicides in French newspapers. After all, if a person chooses to end his life publicly, perhaps the least we can do is acknowledge him beyond the number of trains he delayed and the number of hours he threw off schedule?

Inconnus jusqu’au bout, ils sont des etc. Personne n’a cherché à les retenir, à s’en souvenir…certains ont sûrement voulu secouer la société qui rejette les plus vulnérables. Il me semble percevoir autre chose. Ces solitaires nous renvoient à notre solitude. La plus profonde des solitudes. Celle qui naît d’un accord tacite, d’une conspiration du silence…  

(translation) Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras. Nobody tries to retain them, to remember them… They surely wanted to shake up the society that rejects the most vulnerable. But there is something else. These solitary individuals are returning us to our own solitude. The most profound of solitudes. That which is born of a tacit agreement, of a conspiracy of silence…

Fottorino obviously has strong literary ambitions and a lot of muscle to exercise it with. For a non-native French speaker, his writing often strained beyond my grasp. For French readers, I suspect his acrobatics could cut both ways: literary snob and/or compassionate genius. In line with his distaste for the clinical narrative around suicides, Fottorino does away with the usual association between grief and austerity. Instead, the text is rich, almost laboured, with metaphor, turns-of-phrase and many clever literary devices. It is an exhibition of prowess and it hints at a writer’s self-indulgence at the expense – or the benefit – of the sobering quality of the subject.

At the same time, and as Fottorino would probably argue, his treatment is perhaps necessary. In the way that French newspapers have dealt with suicides in the métro, Fottorino has done the opposite. The book is, I imagine, his antidote. It could be read as an apology for the media industry, the disaffectedness of society, and at the same time as a sort of homage to those who are entangled in a person’s final departure. And it is a pretty good one. There are poignant and beautifully constructed passages that capture that grotesque tensing when a suicidal interacts with the living:

Les conducteurs sont alors pris en otage. Leur machine se fait machination. Une personne veut mourir. Une autre ne veut surtout pas tuer. Elle tue pourtant, malgré elle. 

(translation) The conductors are thus taken hostage. Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill him. He kills nonetheless, despite himself.

Fottorino comes back to the big picture in the final pages, concluding with strong sentiments on social suffering, a theme that is increasingly batted around in French media and academia. He takes to task not only modern society’s indifference to suicides, but the institutional inability of investigating the correlation between structural problems and individual despair.

Les mots parlent malgré eux. France et souffrance, France sous-France. Le suicide interroge les fondements de notre condition humaine. Notre société du chiffre triomphant et des records insignificants ne sait pas relier chômage et suicide, précarité et suicide, harcèlement et suicide, perte de l’estime de soi et acte désespéré

(translation) The words speak despite the [silence of society]. France and suffering. France and under-France. Suicide is interrogating the fundaments of the human condition. Our society of the triomphant numbers and insignificant records does not know how to linkunemployment and suicide, precarity and suicide, harassment and suicide, the loss of self-esteem and the act of desperation. 

With its heavy criticism of modern isolation and French society, Suite à un accident grave de voyageur may be less ideal for the suicidal than for the living. I’m not sure what sort of comfort can be taken from the book for someone in the dark woods, except for the fact that it is beautifully written and a worthy attempt at returning some dignity to lost and lonely lives. Ultimately, it doesn’t get into the frame of understanding the suicidal as much as Al Alvarez’s The Savage God does, but it offers a satisfying philosophical and literary exploration into the archness of modern society.

So it doesn’t go into the suburbs of depression, it stays with the journey of the living: train conductors, the people on board, the people who miss their trains, the ones who bitch about that brief delay in their lives, the ones who mourn that permanent loss of a stranger’s life. And perhaps it is what is needed to break the silence.

Earlier this year, I interviewed a wonderful young illustrator called Béatrice Boutignon for a TV story I was doing about the gay marriage and gay adoption debate in France. To date, Boutignon has published three children’s books that gently challenge traditional preconceptions of family. I finally picked up her latest book Un air de familles (published by Le Baron Perché) this week and loved it so much that I decided to review it on Goodreads. Tender, persuasive, and completely undidactic, I think Boutignon has hit all the right notes with a young audience that matters enormously in how society will shift in opinion as time goes on.

Un air de familles by Béatrice Boutignon

Un air de familles by Béatrice Boutignon

A cool bit of trivia to show you how this book matters: politician Dominique Bertinotti gifted a copy of it to the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira herself, who was widely applauded for her passionate defence of gay rights before the French National Assembly last month. So don’t you scoff now. Big differences can come from the small things.

My review, originally on Goodreads:

Un air de familles is a beautifully illustrated children’s book that tries to dismantle traditional preconceptions of family. In this “big book of little differences”, Boutignon uses soft pastels to introduce all sorts of animals and family types: the adopted marmot in a family of racoons, a single polar bear mother, father ostrich with his new boyfriend, mother crane who comes from another country. There isn’t a particular narrative that holds the characters all together. Rather, It is a sampling of day-to-day events of real life, with families at the carnival and in the doctor’s waiting room. The images unfold in two-page spreads, with a short narrative of voices on one end. It’s not immediately apparent who the voices belong to, but Boutignon leaves small hints to help you identify the character in the spread by what he or she says, making the book interactive as well as educational. I definitely found it fun to search for the characters and can imagine that children would too. 

An afternoon at the museum

An afternoon at the museum

With my two papas, we often go to the museum.
They always tell me the stories behind the paintings.

Papa and mama are very impressed by the totem.
When we grow up, my sister and I are going to make one that is just as beautiful!

My brother and I love the painting of the pink flamingos.
My little sister, the daughter of mama and her new lover, just thinks it’s silly.

But what makes this book truly special is its message and timeliness. Un air de familles was published while the gay marriage and gay adoption debate was still raging on in France. For months, all everyone could talk about was whether legalising gay marriage and gay adoption would be a “threat” to family values. Many argued that children had a right to a “normal” family, to grow up with a mother and father.

Boutignon’s illustrations and words push beyond these social constructions in a gentle and undidactic way. The voices you hear in this book are the unassuming voices of the children themselves. A baby chick wonders where his two adventurous mother hens will take him traveling tomorrow. A baby elephant falls asleep as his African dad sings him African nursery rhymes and his Indian mum murmurs Indian lullabies. Three young polar bears cuddle up with their single mother in bed. At the end of the book, Boutignon has inserted an empty box next to a long line of families asking “And you, what is your family like?” It is a soothing and uninvasive lesson about how families come in all shapes and sizes, including your own, and that it’s okay. 

My two mothers and me

My two mothers and me

If you’re reading this with a child, you’ll no doubt be wondering if you should explain the issues of diversity and tolerance as you go through the book. But you don’t really need to. Boutignon has struck upon a simple and wonderful truth: that children recognise love and happiness when they see it, that that’s what truly defines a family, and that’s all there is to it.

Dropped in at Shakespeare & co. last weekend with some friends, a couple of whom had never been to the bookshop before. As usual, I coasted to and fro between the shelves and jostling tourists, mentally pruning for a new find. It’s my habit to wander around inside bookshops, plucking books out by their spines and hugging them possessively until a bored or hungry friend nudges me to hurry up. It’s how I settle on my “find of the day”; I move to a corner, put my pile down, and discard book after book until I can’t. This time, the book I could not discard was Belgian artist Brecht Evens‘s The Making Of (Les Amateurs, in French).

Image

I’m a huge fan of black and whites. I love the contrast, the shadows, the sillhouettes, the moodiness of ink; I love how there is a hint of another shape in every space, that wink towards optical illusion. With the exception of Asterios Polyp, my favourite graphic novels have always been in black and white. And when it comes to my own work, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’ve no talent for colours. I hide in monochrome.

But Brecht Evens blew me away. I won’t dwell on the story, since the Guardian has done a decent job reviewing it here. I want to talk about the art, oh god, the art. The Making Of is a tome of watercolours that is totally original in its vision. Characters fade in and out, translucently layered over each other, under clothing, floating above kitchen sinks; suggesting that everything is temporeal, the stuff of flashing heat and moods. In this way, Evens has a special talent for crowds. They blend with loud colours into the floor, the ceiling, the streets, the sofas. There is enough movement to these energetic, absract spreads to keep you poring over the detail and soaking up the atmosphere on the page for at least five minutes. For a comic book, that’s an extraordinary amount of time.

As with most comics, Evens has managed to keep his character designs simple and easy to follow while keeping a surprising level of detail – a print shirt, flowery dresses, ghost-like eyes – that pulls your eye back for a linger. When he’s working those panels, Evens harks back to the likes of Bastien Vivès’s Dans mes yeux: effortless lines and colours sketching out the same moment over a number of sequential stills, often with a telling change in body language and pace in dialogue.

Evens has a fantastic range of style. In 160 pages, he manages to allude to great European masters by appropriating his own style of pointillism, cubism, and surrealism. Some pages are so richly textured and ornamental they look more suited to be murals:

The Making Of is not great writing as far as comics go, but it is Evens’s gorgeous artwork that truly makes the book stand its own ground. With colouring skills like these, even I’m tempted to grab a box of watercolours.

Here’s a speed drawing by Brecht Evens at this year’s Angoulême. I’m not that short-sighted, am I? He really is holding two brushes?

just finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen after a hard-won 8 hour reading marathon (the result of mucho self-entitlement after 3 grueling finals in 4 days). i’d started before A’s visit the weekend before and was completely stolen away into the sluggish depression of Patty and suburban america. D had apparently tried reading it before but gave up on account of the book being far too depressing for him to handle. and god how depressing the first half was! i was so completely entangled in Patty’s pet miseries and peculiar blindness to her toxic relationships that i could not enjoy the weekend with A. Walter reminded me of A, with his unrequited goodness and sweet but hopeless disposition with women. the whole weekend, i couldn’t get over the similarity and despaired for A to meet such a Patty (not that we are anything alike but i have an unfailing propensity to over-relate with fictional characters) and be so undeservedly smited for his goodness and relentless pursuit of difficult women. it was a complete relief to see Walter become the unexpected star of the drama and see the damaged people he loved outlove each other in their love for him. good guys do win. so now it is nearly 5am, 3 hours past the time i would have given up on my lecture notes and gone to bed but i cannot go to sleep. not while the Berglunds are still more alive to me than the wet world outside and certainly not while i am still cringing from the ending. it was beautiful in every way except that it finished on a note which smacked of a cheesy reminder of something that could not have been. oh i’m speaking in riddles, but only because i hate divulging oversimplified details and explaining anything – i save that stuff for the journalism assignments, hey. Franzen is probably the closest equivalent i’ve read to the modern Tolstoy. he brings you inside the heads of the gentrifying american middle class, mires you in the trivial but smothering absurdities of surburbia, and yet glues you to the extraordinary ordinary lives of his characters, who are so real i cannot stop… feeling them. i see Walter and Patty nuzzling in bed after 6 years of separation next to me when i flip onto one side, slick Joey and impenetrable Connie finally cemented in an open and happy marriage on the other.

all these imagined happy couplings are making me pine for monday. just 3 more days before christmas break delivers me into the arms of the version of Walter i know!

old books make me think of sex. though in those days i did not think of sex as sex. they make me think of MAD magazine, of afternoons sitting on the scratched marble floor in our old house in Taman SEA, when 婆婆 was still living with us and most agile with a cane, when i still slept on a thin mattress in the same room as my parents, when my world was just the neighbourhood and when i was still running around catching tadpoles from the drain behind our house in a competition with the neighbourhood boys.

they make me think of sex – though at the time sex to me was that incomprehensible taboo of adults stripping naked and getting close to each other – because of the way those old magazines smelled. a sophisticated waft of stale talcum powder which i had thought was dust, of dry armpits, of the skin of an old person… it was a peculiar scent that to me blended in with images of a world filled with adult secrets like naked bodies, full breasts and erect nipples, pubic hair. lust was incomprehensible to me at the time, yet there were books on the shelves in the living room which nobody read or seemed to even remember, filled with pointed references to this mystifying idea of copulation and nakedness. graphic books filled with lewd and rabid imagery that were not meant for children, much more non-american ones, but were handed to me anyway because my unwitting parents believed all comics were meant for children. in this way, MAD’s cover wide grin with the gap in his front teeth and oval american freckles somehow became as much a part of my limited childhood consciousness as the bland adventures of peter and jane.

opening up the pages of Read Yourself Raw, i am again hit with the same wave of warped erotica that accompanied those scrambled afternoons of indiscriminate readings. the book is as old as i am, but i am somehow still feeling young and tainted – all over again – from the same talcum powder smell and the even starker brutality of these comics that make no pretensions to mollycuddle my sensibilities. only now the exhiliration, revulsion and confusion that i am met with comes with a host of new considerations: am i still just too young, or am i now just too asian, too conservative, too undiscerning for such literature?

contemporary writing, and by this i suppose i mean post-90’s writing, doesn’t seem to even touch the same level of haunting talcum powder sensations that RYR does. is it because i’m not reading enough?

impressions after an afternoon of Be A Nose

i felt so mind-fucked (in the good way) after going through Art Spiegelman’s collection of sketchbooks “Be A Nose” that i felt like doing a little homage to it. if you look for it you can just about make out the highlighter yellow emitting from the flashlight. mouse and flashlight take up the focus point because i liked page 38 from Spiegelman’s 1983 sketchbook best. and no, didn’t use the books as reference, just picked out the impressions that hit me the hardest.