Saturday, February 6, 2016

L'Arabe Du Futur by Riad Sattouf

My mom gave me these books for Christmas, and I set out to read them mostly because I know nothing about Syria and need some serious French practice. Sattouf speaks from the perspective of his two to six year old self, telling the story of his childhood in France, Libya, and Syria, and shifts color schemes as he moves from country to country. His memories from France are tinted blue, Syria red, and Libya, yellow, a device that felt a little forced at first, but that I ended up really liking. 

The bulk of the texts takes place in Syria, and while the drawings are highly stylized, the brutality and poverty of life in rural Syria under Hafez al-Assad is palpable. Most of the more horrific aspects are somewhat glazed over; the stories are told through the eyes of Sattouf as tiny kid. That being said, there are horrifying moments of violence and loss of innocence that stick with you. Early on in their life in Syria, Sattouf watches out a window while a group of kids finds a puppy and then kicks it almost to death before impaling it on a pitchfork. Sattouf's father, obsessed with hunting, takes him out and shoots the only game they can find--sparrows perched on a telephone wire. The next frame zooms in on what Sattouf sees when he goes to collect their haul: the sparrow's feet, blown apart from their bodies, still clinging to the telephone wire. Sattouf's style is all curves and bold lines; images like these are rendered in the same cartoony style as the rest of the book, making them that much more haunting.

As could probably be expected, the treatment of women in Syria does not come across well. Sattouf's mother, a blonde frenchwoman, is permanently aghast and exhausted by the smallness of her life in Syria and the wretchedness of the lives of women around her. We see her through her young son's eyes, so this attitude comes through in small details (her hunched posture and bagged eyes are sometimes labelled to draw our attention to them), and occasional huge outbursts at her seemingly oblivious husband. I would have liked to see more of her internal life and thoughts, but that's a clear limit of the genre, not of Sattouf as a writer.

My favorite moment was when Sattouf starts to read French. He's been studying Arabic in school, but his mother has been slowly teaching him French at home. His family has a stack of Tin Tin comics which Sattouf has been "reading" on his own, making up stories to go with the pictures. One day, he picks up one of the books, and realizes that his is able to decipher words from the squiggles. He is amazed and delighted--the stories Herge wrote are even better than those Sattouf imagined. I love this scene for so many reasons. The vast majority of discoveries Sattouf makes are corrupting; to get to witness a more innocent breakthrough was a very refreshing oasis of hope. Second, I have a vivid memory of EXACTLY THIS MOMENT with Tin Tin comics. Sattouf is totally right. Herge is a way better storyteller than the seven year old imagination. Finally, there is a clear, Herge-esque quality to Sattouf's drawings. This moment was a nice nod to that bridge.

Overall, the books were more interesting as a character study of a confused third culture kid than they were as an account of Syrian culture. Because the whole thing is remembered through the eyes of a small child, the scope is small. The details are salient and feel real, but a lot of the bigger context is missing; possibly purposely since Sattouf himself wouldn't have had context beyond snippets of news and overheard adult conversation at the time.

The first volume is out here and the second is coming soon. If you like graphic novels: highly recommend.

No comments: