Saturday, 6 November 2010

Stranger in a strange land

These days Exeter Central Library is building up a strong collection of graphic novels, and whoever is doing the selection deserves credit for the variety of choice. I just borrowed The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

Shaun Tan
The Arrival
low-res image as
fair use for
Beautifully drawn in pencil, and sepia-printed, it's a completely wordless story telling of the experiences of an immigrant from the Old World to the New World - but with magic realist elaborations that accentuate the alienness of coming to a new culture. The story starts in a downtrodden and evidently European city that is menaced by some unspecified doom that appears like dragon tails in the sky. The protagonist leaves his wife and daughter and takes a ship with other immigrants to a metropolis across the ocean that very loosely resembles New York. Its fixtures, however, are alien to him and the reader: geometric and biomorphic buildings, incomprehensible script, bizarre foods (he looks for bread, and is offered an assortment of curly vegetables that have to be roasted at the table with a kind of blowlamp), little hybrid companion animals, and much else. Even the nature of reality is different: fire and daylight take the form of geometric sunwheels that rise from the ground to the sky. In constant culture shock and accompanied by the tadpole-dog he found in a pot in his lodgings, he meets other immigrants - a girl who has escaped from a nightmarish landscape of furnaces, a vegetable-shop keeper who has escaped with his wife from a city menaced by giant hoover-wielding soldiers, and an old war veteran - and eventually finds friends and is reunited with his family.

The Arrival was published as a children's book, but I can't imagine what I would have made of it as a child, as there are depths of allusion in it that only adult readers will appreciate (for instance, despite the alien fixtures, the depot where the arriving immigrants are processed is closely modelled on Ellis Island). In the afterword, Shaun Tan notes homages such as Tom Roberts' painting Coming South (miscredited as Going South) and Gustave DorĂ©'s Over London by Rail; the actual storyline draws on anecdotes from two books -  The Immigrants by Lowenstein and Loh, and Tales from a Suitcase by Davies and Dal Bosco - along with other sources including the experiences of Tan's own father, who came from Malaysia to Western Australia in 1960.

The book could be mildly criticised for its feelgood assumption that immigrants from different cultures will be sympathetic to each other (allegorically, in its New World, even the hybrid animals - tadpole-dog, owl-dragon-cat and bird-fish - are mutually friendly). However, this is a tiny quibble.  It's a strange, beautiful and moving book: I highly recommend it.

See for more about the author.  The Arrival page has samplers of the book's artwork and short commentary on the creative process behind it; the companion volume, Sketches from a Nameless Land, looks rather nice. The site features other interesting material such as PICTURE BOOKS: Who Are They For?, an essay debunking the idea that picture books are only for children.  See also the preview.

- Ray

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