What are words good for when considering war?
A woman visits a museum, where she seems lost in her own thoughts: the museum guard has to wake her up from the reverie and ask her to leave. She is looking at a diorama staging a brutal battlefield. (The book does not state it explicitly, but one surmises it to be the Waterloo diorama, found at the Mémorial 1815, a favourite spot for school visits in Belgium) We see lying corpses, severed limbs, falling horses and their falling riders, spoils of war. The woman is carrying a travelling bag, she seems alone. She leaves the museum, grabs a taxi and heads to an isolated trailer park where she rents a place to stay for a while. Questions start to form in the reader’s mind. Is she travelling? Where is she going? Or is she running from somewhere? Who is the child in the picture she props on the shelf above her bed? What is its function: a little personal touch in the bleak trailer? An object of solace? Spoils of war?
Fany, the protagonist, barely engages with other characters. She seems not to wish to go beyond the bare necessity of words. That very little, however, allows for the reader to create a chain of information that points toward a definitive direction. It is in the visual plane, however, that we gain a privileged access to a bolder, juicer “storyline.” Snippets of dialogue here and there and bursts of non-diegetic images that help us put together the puzzle, slowly.
First of all, there are the strategies of offering the characters’ individual perspectives and the typified patterns of shot/reaction shot, which embolden the subjectification of the guiding gaze, and which help to anchor the irrupting scenes. Then, there are a number of scenes with sequences of visual metaphors, to which I’ll return later, and that contribute with many associations and interpretations, all of which seemingly related to gender violence, castigated sexuality, isolatedness, and a profound, damaging pain of loss. And then finally, opening up in front of our eyes but only understood after the fact, putative flashbacks to the past. The core of unspoken trauma unravels through these visual clues: a daughter that has been killed.
In the trailer park, Fany builds nonetheless relationships with the people that live there. Pierrot, the park’s super, who reassembles the landscape puzzles of his grandmother’s collection, a last keepsake cum plan for a hypothetical world tour. Jean and Gina, an elderly couple who spend their days in gossip-mongering and in passive-aggressive bickering towards everyone else. And Jean-Louis, a solitary lumberjack who used to be a regional boxing champion and now seems to spend his days wandering about and as surprised and interested in Fany’s arrival as a stray dog, even to point of offering her a rabbit he hunted in the nearby woods with his rifle. And an actual stray dog. Small talk by small talk, little gesture by little gesture, these characters make up a constellation filled with attractions and repulsions that brings about newer doubts every time something more is revealed. And even if Fany remains throughout the main character, we will have differentiated access to the several character’s inner and past lives, that invite multiple comparisons with Fany herself.
The book is almost entirely done in Lambé’s signature fine broken lines, filled with subtle grey washes. The pages present variations of a relentless underlying 2 x 2 grid, which allows for the fusion of two panels into larger horizontal ones or even splash pages or spreads, framed with perfectly straight lines and clear white margins. This brings, at one time, an inexorable rhythm to the depicted events but also a calmness of sorts. On the one hand, the repetitive page composition and the rapid succession of the grid, sometimes with the flux of the “actual” events being interrupted by sudden flashbacks or “imaginative” panels, seem to push forward the action, even if it’s within the character’s minds and hearts. But Lambé’s simple figures and more or less flat colouring, the silhouettes, the isolated objects and bodies in blank panels, create also islands where we feel the forceful influence of a static icon. As if we were witnessing a paradoxical encounter between turmoil and appeasement.
In a previous review, I compared Lambé’s style with that of Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel’s plasticity. What this comparison allows is, superficially speaking, for the permanent tension between the finely closed contours of the objects and characters and their filled washes, which seem to float within the darker lines. This fluidity gains further momentum when used in the complicated, non-linear associations and passages that the book evokes, as we shall see.
Once in a while, there are bursts of colours: a photograph, the clear blue sky, the red of a military coat, the yellow bird houses built by Jean. Sometimes, there are visual clues that allow us to locate them within the purview of a particular character’s focalization. Some others, the tinted objects seem to be “objective,” as they’re seen as such by everyone. Why is there occasional colour in a grey world? How come they appear in such strong terms? One feels that a possible interpretation would be the presence, right there and then, of a hopeful note, but that would be too trite, wouldn’t it? However, is there something wrong in yielding to emotions such as these? Primal, basic, trivial, essential? After all, Lambé and Pierpont’s previous collaborations – Alberto G., La pluie, Un voyage – explored the complicated networks of human relationships: loneliness, dependency, love, heartbreak, pain, expectancy, a deep set will to discover what one is capable of when free of all social and human tethers.
Having said this, Paysage feels a little more conventional in its structure, emotional attachments and linearity of purposes than the previous titles. The authors always delve into territories which are dense and vibrating, in which the unsaid has as much weight and leverage as the things spoken out loud and shown. But we are far from some of the research of those tensions as in La pluie [in Portuguese only], about a failing relationship against the backdrop of a perpetual rain, or Un voyage [ditto], about a dying man and the tough decision he must make. Not to mention that, published within Frémok (even if with the support of Actes Sud), we are even further from the radical experimentalist traits of that house’s catalogue. Paysage presents more characters, a clear network of mutual cooperation and blockage, aid and hindrance, which make up a smoother “story.” Thus, the authors delve into pathetic yet not melodramatic depictions of human qualities, which are nonetheless better expressed through doubt and inaction, surprise and expectation, silence, and sometimes, though rarely, awe.
The authors use a number of pages where visual metaphors take place. Now this would warrant a paper (and there are some about it), but let’s keep this simple. According to one school of thought (with Noël Carroll), a visual metaphor occurs when we have homospatiality, i.e., when within the image that is presented we see at one time elements from the disparate categories that come together (the conceptual opposite of “reversible” or “either/or images” such as Jastrow’s Duck-Rabbit or Necker cubes). In painting and drawing, these elements are juxtaposed or mingled. In a sequential, time-framed medium, of which comics may be a form, these metaphors can occur when we have distinct images of disparate categories in different panels, and it’s thanks to the connections created by the reading act that one’s associative powers kick in. When we see Jean-Louis lifting his rifle and getting ready to shoot, and in the adjacent page we see Fany, naked, in the shower, even though we know that diegetically he is not pointing the gun at her, we do create that possibility of interpretation in the surface of the pages. Lambé and Pierpont use this mechanism continually, and in the most diverse situations, to tamper with issues that have to do with fact and imagination, present perception and past memories, the plasticity of memory itself, and so on, in order to inquiry about sexual drives, motherhood, projection and identification, social mores and familiar responsibility, the difficulty of letting go painful memories, to “work through” psychologically with trauma, and the way we’re always amenable to be assaulted by unwanted reminiscences.
Indeed, panels that elicit Fany’s recent memory of the diorama repeatedly and suddenly erupt within the narrative sequences, revealing the openness of memory to traumatic repetition. The diorama images, which we know how it was experienced thanks to the opening scene of the book, act as the vestibule to the tortuous visitation of the “accident” scene. The very accident, actually, is not clear because in the two moments we have visual access to that scene, we see two female characters riding bikes, one younger than the other. We could assume this to be Fany and her daughter, but there are small differences in the scene: they are either wearing or not helmets and rucksacks, the accident itself occurs in slightly different manners, the drivers are not the same, the response of the surviving woman is somewhat contradictory, and so on… Both the diorama and the accident scenes enmesh in a brilliant way both the protagonists’ and the reader’s memory, bringing up a very telling example of tressage. (the cover and endpapers make up a sort of circular, endless diorama where the battle and the book’s characters come together). Later on, Fany musters the strength to retell the accident to Jean-Louis, and we discover that, at least in the verbal version, it was her daughter’s father who was with her at the moment of the accident.
In western culture, we tend to trust words more than we do pictures, and that suspicion seems to be thematized in the book. But the truth is that memory, arguably the material at the core of Paysage aprés la bataille, whether accessed through images (the assaulting reminiscences) or through verbal structuring (an attempt at rationalization), is always a flexible thing… Every time we remember a given event, that memory is altered subtly (or less subtly), by the very act of retrieving it. Is any of the visual versions truer that the verbal one? Or is the verbal version an attempt to create further distance from the tragedy, at the same time it becomes a rationalization for Fany leaving her husband? Or is it that Fany is (re)playing a fantasy scene, a wish-fulfillment scene, in which she would share her daughter’s last moments, and not her father?
We will never be certain, because it is not really said, either through words or images. But Fany’s memories, either true or constructed (aren’t they always?), are what’s left. Her own spoils of war.
A thank you note to the publisher for the review copy, and to Benoît Crucifix for proof-reading and the note about Waterloo.