Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #78: A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached

No artistic work should be judged by its imitators or successors: would you want to count Sharknado against Jaws? But, sometimes, the bones of the originator are so near to the surface of the later work that they need to be acknowledged immediately.

Zeina Abirached's first graphic novel is A Game for Swallows, and it screams Persepolis at the top of its lungs. It's not Abirached's fault: she's another woman who grew up in a strife-ridden country in the Middle East (Lebanon, in her case) and who fled with her family to France when still young. It's true that even her artistic style -- all big slabs of black and precise white outlines, looking like woodcuts or scratchboard -- is reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi, but style is style, and can't be held against the artist.

But, still: A Game for Swallows will inevitably be reminiscent of Persepolis, for good or bad. Abirached's story is very different, though: she tells us about one evening during the Lebanese civil war, one day in 1984 after the fighting had forced her family to move into one tiny foyer of their large apartment for safety, one day when her parents were visiting Abirached's grandmother a few streets away on the other side of the all-important dividing Green Line.

So where Persepolis was trying to show the complex life of a teenager being stifled by her culture, A Game for Swallows isn't Abirached's story at all: she's only three years old when this happened, and she and her brother are more Maguffins than anything else. They're the ones at home while the parents are away; the people who belong in the foyer while the rest of the building assembles for safety and gossip -- ostensibly to watch the children until the parents return.

A Game for Swallows has no politics in it: it takes place during a war, but its viewpoint on that war is that of a child. It will not tell us who the fighters are or what they want. There are incoming and outgoing shells, but we don't know from who or where they're landing. Even the sniper at the end of the main street is just an obstacle: just another lousy thing that happens and causes danger. It could almost be any danger, since we don't see the people behind it.

But it is about all of those people in the apartment building: the couple who hope to emigrate to Canada before the pregnant wife comes to term, the well-dressed ex-teacher mourning his twin brother, the pseudo-building superintendent and general fixer, the old lady who spent her life raising generations of other people's children, the ex-restauranteur and his wife. They are all vivid; they are all real. Abirached doesn't belabor the point, but one phrase recurs over and over again: before the war. Everyone was someone else, before the war: they all had lives and jobs and bright futures, and now they're huddling in a small room, trying to stay alive and get out of Beirut.

Most anti-war books try to overwhelm and horrify, but A Game for Swallows plays a quieter game. It shows a society that was utterly smashed by a war and doesn't need to ask if it was worth the destruction. It's rare to see such restraint and understatement from a creator so young -- Abirached was only 26 when this was published in France in 2007 -- and I hope that implies a long and interesting career for her. There are surely many other stories she can tell, her own and others. Her stark inky drawings similarly show a command of space and gesture unusual in a first work -- it's already been seven years since A Game for Swallows, so I have to wonder what she's gotten up to since. I expect it has been marvelous.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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