Tuesday, February 09, 2010

french graphic novel, last m&b, bhutanese travelogue

#11 Kabul Disco, Nicolas Wild


*In Kabul? You'd have to be desperate to take a job like that*.

'Oh, by the way, my real roommate is coming back next week. You got somewhere to go?'

'Uh, I might have somewhere to crash.'

--Mister Spidault, my name is Nicolas Wild and I would like to know more about...--

'The Internet and electricity bills have just come. Did you have time to pay the rent?'

--Mister Spidault, my name is Nicolas Wild and I have had a burning passion for Afghanistan since I was little...--

And that is how Nicolas Wild, impecunious French comic-book artist, ends up in Kabul, with a job illustrating a series of comic books that explain the Afghan constitution to young children. Some of these are reprinted at the end of Kabul Disco [Kaboul Disco in the original French], the first in a series of graphic novels about Wild's life in Afghanistan. The blurb calls the book 'the first in a brilliant series of graphic reportage,' which is fairly misleading. What the book does well is to provide a string of solidly illustrated, warm-hearted and self-deprecating vignettes of the expat life in Kabul. Afghanis live in constant danger, their lives under threat from terrorists, occupiers and a corrupt government, but on the posh streets of the capital, the villas of UN officials vie with the grand homes of the drug lords. For expats like Nicolas, a job in an international conflict zone comes with its considerable hardship allowances: the swanky restaurants, the chauffeured cars and the emergency snack boxes. Wild is fully aware of the trappings of his position. An anti-war, anti-Bush liberal [this plays off beautifully later in the book, with the arrival of a former Bush employee in their midst], he has neither the authority nor the desire to play native in any way at all. Neither patronising nor romantic, Wild is comfortable painting deflationary pictures of the hipsters he settles down with, lampooning himself above all others. He uses these to tell wry, perceptive stories of the beauties and dangers of Kabul, of his friendships with Afghanis and expats alike, and his occasional journeys outside the city, into starker scenes of strife and occupation. He is at his best when he nails the constant moral trade-offs that his work entails. The more I think about this novel, the more I like it.

#12 The Virgin and his Majesty, Robyn Donald

Dear friends, to our mutual relief I can report that I have come to the last of the mills&boon MODERN titles in my current possession, and I will hopefully avoid any more for the rest of the year, having already read more of them in the last month than I have in my whole life. Only a sense of duty kept me reading this one until the end. That's about an hour of my life I'm never getting back. Anyway, I consider it my duty to warn you off this particular MODERN title. Whether because it comes well after the unstoppable charms of the Serrador Express or because of its own demerits, I cannot say, but it induced intense boredom practically from the second word of its title. I know complaining about the virgin fetish in m&b novels is like complaining that pizza has cheese on it, but I have to wonder why it is so strictly enforced. Surely most readers would actually be more inclined to like stories about girls who've had sex before and could therefore appreciate the singularly manly manfulness of their electrifying epitomes of manliness better? It's amusing when you come up against the ordinary-in-every-way-except-for-vestal-virginity template of m&b novels ONCE. Twice, it's annoying. More than that, it's just saddening. I know there are those among us who find the feisty! template for fictional heroines just as unfulfilling and annoying in their own way, but I gotta tell you, if I had to pick between Bella Swan and Elizabeth Swann I know which one I'd want.

Other than that it may interest you to know that the hero's name in this novel is Gerd Chrysander-Gillam. Okay, probably it won't, but I felt impelled to throw it out there.

#13 Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, or "Her Maj" to the people of Bhutan, heads up the Tarayana Foundation in her home country, which 'adopts' Bhutanese who need medical, educational or social care, and provides for them. In her spare time, she writes books like this one, which doubles up as an introduction to Bhutan, as well as an account of her walking tours through the country to meet people in its remote regions to sound out their problems, and help to resolve them.

Now obviously, there's not a whole lot you can deviate from the party line when you're married to His Maj, aka Jigme Singye Wangchuck, aka Hottest King Ever - or King Father [what's the equivalent of Queen Mother?] as of 2008. He has an apparently impressive record to begin with. We know he's been working to democratise the country, just as we know about things like his Gross National Happiness parameter as a way to measure social welfare, and his cautious approach to modernisation [the Internet was allowed into Bhutan in 1999, and TV not too long before that, because of the royal concern for measured, carefully-regulated progress: tourism is still relatively expensive because of the country's strict policies limiting the number of tourists every year]. Her Maj takes the storybook approach in introducing the country to foreign readers, peppering chapters of stories about her childhood and family with anecdotes and data about the nation's religious history and intense spiritual life, which is connected to another major theme of the book: Bhutan's environment, and the people's relationship with nature and conservation. Both make for great reading, especially the latter. In the second half, as the author takes up her queenly duties and travels by car, mule, horse, yak and on foot to reach areas of Bhutan far-flung from the temperate-zone urban centres [understandably for a Himalayan nation, Bhutan's topographical diversity belies its overall tininess] and has almost anthropological meetings with a prodigious diversity of people and tribes.

Of the problems and challenges faced by a country in Bhutan's position - facing a steep upward curve on its modernisation program, nestled between India and China in an extremely politically sensitive region, particularly susceptible to global warming - there's not much in the book. The author prefers to keep it storybook, and a charming story it is; I suppose the whole point of it is to leave you wanting more. I nurture faint ambitions of going to Bhutan someday, and before I do I would love to read something more about it, so I'm open to suggestions for further reading if anyone has any.

1 comment:

  1. pulicat3:34 am

    speaking of graphic novels set in afghanistan, check out 'the photographer' (part photography, part comic).