Thursday, June 26, 2008

The First Chilean Graphic Novel

Here is one gem that I found at convention Viñetas Sueltas in Buenos Aires in May. Published in 2007, Road Story is a comics adaptation of a short story by Chilean Alberto Fuguet (whose accomplishments include translations into several languages and one movie). As in David Mazzuchelli’s adaptation of City of Glass, cartoonist Gonzalo Martínez uses the unique language of comics to build upon an already rich work of prose. While collections of serialized political or humorous comics are common in Chile, it is less usual to publish a longer narrative story, in this case 127 pages.

A paragraph from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road including the line “I didn’t know who I was” introduces the story opposite the splash page. While Kerouac transformed travel into a lifelong journey of searching for "It" or finding Enlightenment, this adventure is a road trip with which middle-class Americans may be more familiar (though both trips certainly share the virtue of being doused with more than enough booze). As the opening line states: "Simon feels that all this is a parenthesis. Parentheses are like boomerangs, he believes. They even look like them. They enter your life suddenly and cut off your past from your present with a clean precise blow."

Subtly using characters' experiences to hint at a broader social context, Road Story is a telling window into both the pan-American dream and its dark side. After a failed marriage, protagonist Simon sold his business and left his home in Chile. Retracing a path that Fuguet once traveled himself, Simon drives around the American Southwest and dips into Mexico. As seen below (click to enlarge), using awkward camera angles that don't reveal the character’s face, Simon contemplates his accomplishments. A book he edited for his father's company is tossed aside amid a bottle of Gatorade, a symbol of American consumption familiar in South America. (Before I cheaply inserted English text using Paint, captions had typed letters while world and thought balloons were hand-lettered.)

Similar to Jason Lutes, Martínez subtly creates a sad, yet endearing tone and enriches the story with visual motifs that illustrate the character’s inner struggles. For example, Simon's changes in hair style reflect his fumbling self-image. In the flashback below, thawing frost on a windshield serves as a metaphor for his growing awareness that his wife Natalia was cheating on him.

While Jessica Abel’s La Perdida reveals the misguided entry into Latin America of a half-Mexican girl born in the United States, Road Story (the original title of the Spanish-language comic) shows how oddly comfortable a Chilean is in the United States. Indeed, Simon thinks that the United States colonized his subconscious.

The story works because of poignant prose narration complimented by austere drawings. There are also a number of moments, like the illustrations at right and below of how Simon met and married Natalia years earlier, in which images alone communicate key developments.

As Simon travels, Road Story concisely takes the reader through a process of healing, a very human process with painfully real moments, expressed in ways that are both blunt and naked while also subtle and understated. While wandering, Simon links up with a Bolivian woman, Adriana, who was “made in the USA”. The relationship between Simon and Ariadna develops infused with uttered clichés and made-up identities. A scene in which Simon is rudely awakened by the suicide of a hotel neighbor eerily foreshadows a later scene in which Adriana nearly drinks herself to death.

The art is straight-forward and utilitarian, if at times uninteresting. By the end of the story, the reader may tire of looking at Simon's frowning mug. The entire work stays true to the mood of parenthesis. Ultimately, Simon closes the parenthesis. But does he really acknowledging the cause of his problems? While Road Story critiques consumerist culture, it is the nuanced perspective of someone ingrained in it, enjoying its benefits.

Compared to its neighbor’s, Chile is a country who has historically had closer economic and political relations with the United States and it is a place with a substantial middle and upper class. In 1988, when the pro-capitalist CIA-backed dictator Pinochet allowed elections for the first time since his coup in 1973, he narrowly lost, winning 44% of the vote. By contrast, the Argentine dictators only received about 10% of the votes when they tried to continue their rule once elections were held. Chile is a country that deals with the complicated legacy of economic "success". Were it to be translated in English, Road Story would be a fascinating treatment of familiar issues with the twist of the perspective of the developing world.

For the first 10 pages translated into English, check out: