Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #178: On the Camino by Jason

Why does someone go on a pilgrimage in modern Europe? The obvious reason would be religion, but that's rarely the central purpose these days. It's not part of general cultural life for Christians -- not the way the hajj still is for Muslims -- and many of the people who make those journeys aren't particularly Christian to begin with.

But pilgrimages continue. People find a reason to walk, and find something for themselves at the end of the walk. The Norwegian cartoonist who works as "Jason" trekked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in northern Spain in 2015, soon after his fiftieth birthday. And he made a book out of it, On the Camino. He doesn't say why he went; it's not clear he knows, or has a single "why." And he doesn't tell us what he found out, for the same reason.

What he does is tell us the story of the trip, placing us in his head and shoes for that month-long walk, and to let us feel what it was like to be Jason on the Camino. (Well, his real name is John, and that's what he tells people his name is in the book. But you know what I mean.)

It's all told in a very Jason way: matter-of-fact, almost affectless, with animal-headed characters moving through a world depicted fairly simply. He works entirely in black-and-white for this book as well. Jason himself is at the center of the trip, obviously, and is the viewpoint the entire time. This is what he saw and did in thirty-three days of walking, told like a Jason graphic novel. He even gets in his abrupt shifts of points of reference, as when he sees a giant slug on the trial -- first drawing it "giant" and then it's actual size.

The story is inherently different from Jason's fictional works: there's no twists to the plot, obviously, and he can't throw in genre elements for complications or interest. On the other hand, how do we know this is all true? We think it is because Jason tells us so, and because it has the everydayness and banality of real life -- but that's justification rather than proof. That's the case for any non-fiction story, of course: how can we believe the teller and the tale? If there's no reason not to tell the truth, we assume it is the truth -- we're all lazy, both as storytellers and listeners.

Jason is an introvert, most comfortable alone -- as you would expect from someone who spends his life sitting in a room to think up stories and draw them -- and much of On the Camino, starting from the very first page, is his struggle to be more open, to come out of his shell and engage with the other pilgrims and the locals. He has no gigantic epiphanies -- we wouldn't expect them from Jason, anyway. His hopes aren't dashed, either, which would be more in keeping with his fiction.

Instead, he walks. He meets some people, and runs into some of them repeatedly. He has some good conversations and interesting thoughts while walking alone. He also has blisters and bedbugs and food that doesn't agree with him. Every life and journey has good and bad, yes? It's a cliche even to mention it.

And he tells that story, in his four-panel grid, with his stone-faced characters with animal heads -- this is a Jason book, and it looks like one. He will not tell you what to think of it in the end; he's never told you what to think of any of his stories. But you can take the trip with him. I think it's worth the time.

(Note: this book does not credit a translator. And, in the story, "John" speaks English much of the time. So my guess is that Jason translated it himself, or wrote a text for this edition in English. I think I've found the original French edition, Un norvĂ©gien vers Compostelle, published only four months before the US edition.)

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