Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #217: Paul Joins the Scouts by Michel Rabgaliati

The big question mark in "semi-autobiographical" is always the "semi." We necessarily have more questions when a storyteller says "this all happened, more or less" than when he says "this is exactly what happened to me." And we have more questions the more that storyteller extends his tale to include things that happened to other people.

Michel Rabagliati has been writing and drawing a series of semi-autobiographical stories about a man named "Paul" for more than a decade now, and it's been pretty clear that "Paul" was very close to the real Rabagliati -- that perhaps the only real difference in their lives was the name. (Some of those books are Paul Goes Fishing, Paul Has a Summer Job, and Paul Moves Out -- all of them have been moving, beautifully crafted and emotionally true.) The newest "Paul" book in English is Paul Joins the Scouts -- and it focuses on Paul at a younger age than we've seen him before, and centers around a tragedy very close to the young Paul.

So one immediate reaction is to ask: is that real? But that's perhaps the wrong reaction. Paul Joins the Scouts is a work of art, not of reportage -- and that tragedy, shocking as it is, fits entirely into the fabric of the story Rabagliati is telling here.

Paul is in primary school when Paul Joins the Scouts begins, in the summer of 1969. (Rabagliati was born in 1961, for parallax.) He sees a cub scout troop returning from camp, and eventually decides to join them. He camps with them the next summer, but has to miss the 1971 summer camp after he breaks his leg just before the trip. That's the spine of the book: woven in and through that are the other events and relationships of Paul's life: Helene, the girl he likes and who becomes as much his girlfriend as ten-year-olds can; Paul's parents and their relationship with his father's mother and aunt, who live in the apartment opposite and are always intruding; and Paul's attempts to learn the skills he wants to have, first in drawing comics and then in playing the guitar.

Like the other Paul books, Paul Joins the Scouts has a slice-of-life feel but is carefully organized and orchestrated; Rabagliati breaks from Paul's viewpoint to show the lives of each of the three main scout leaders, and breaks his story into thematic chapters, signposted by images rather than words. Unlike the previous books, Rabagliati maintains a quiet undertone of menace through, mostly from the activities of the terrorist group FLQ who were at their most active in 1970, leading up to the October Crisis, when they kidnapped a British commissioner and a Vice-Premier of Quebec and brought down a huge police and military response. Their activities, and the graffiti Paul sees every few pages, keep that idea of sudden devastating violence alive in these pages, until Rabagliati needs it.

Rabagliati's drawing is still lovely and effortless-looking, with a UPA-inspired line married to ligne claire influences. And the story he has to tell this time is as strong as any he's given us before, as he illuminates another piece of Paul's life -- and, we assume, his own.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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