Saturday, September 21, 2013

Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust

In 1984, Ulli Lust was a rebellious seventeen-year-old punk, a dropout from art school living in her sister's Vienna apartment. Like so many other seventeen-year-olds, she wanted to live, not to settle down with a boring job or school program or any of those things her parents (and everyone else's parents) demanded.

So, one day, with a new friend named Edi who'd made the trip before, she snuck across the border into Italy -- this was before Austria fully joined the EU, so there was still strict border control -- and the two teen girls wandered their way south, looking for adventures and to spend the winter in sunny Sicily.

Twenty-five years later, Lust wrote and drew the story of her younger self as Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, and it was published to acclaim in Berlin, where she's lived for many years. And then, just this year, her graphic story (surely I shouldn't call it a novel, should I?) was translated into English, as one of the last projects of the great editor/translator Kim Thompson.

Lust was very young at the time, but she doesn't judge her younger self at all here -- in an astonishing leap, she tells this story entirely from her younger self's viewpoint, without her later life or thoughts intruding at all. Your Life reads almost precisely like the story that seventeen-year-old girl would have created right then, if she had the energy and skill and distance and fearlessness to do it.

The young Lust had attitude and guts to spare -- she made that whole trip with just the clothes on her back and a borrowed sleeping bag, panhandling for food money and sleeping wherever she could. She also was subject to the attentions of Italian men -- something the "nymphomaniac" Edi didn't mind; Edi was happy, in Lust's retelling years later, to sleep with pretty much anyone who wanted to have her -- in the endless, wearing way of that very traditional Catholic nation at that time, where every foreign woman (especially young, especially traveling alone, especially buxom and shabby, especially poor) was fair game for any man who could grab her. Lust was about as tough as she could be, and she pushed back as hard as she could against that endless, grinding attention and harassment, but she had very little power and Sicily, as she portrays it, cares much more for a man's honor not to be refused than a woman's right to control her own actions.

So Your Life is not all a fun adventure -- Edi is a loose cannon, called "stupid" by other characters and certainly very sensation-seeking and risk-taking, and their other friends, fellow travelers, and would-be lovers are as bad or worse in their own ways -- and Lust finds herself an object and in serious danger, in ways she doesn't even realize at the time. She does get out, of course -- the existence of this book proves it -- but not unscarred, and not the same as the girl who left.

The back cover tries to sell this as "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" -- and all of that certainly is part of Lust's journey -- but Your Life is deeper and more serious than that. Lust tells her own story, but what makes Your Life resonant is what it says about men and women -- about predatory men and the women they victimize -- and that's what will stick with the reader afterward. Lust isn't grinding any axes here: she just tells her story, and shows exactly what those men were like, and leaves her readers to realize for themselves how wrong that world is.

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