Thursday, May 12, 2022

The True Story of the Unknown Soldier by Tardi

The title gives away the end. You may not realize how, as you dive into the surreal, dreamlike early pages, but it will all be clearer by the end. And the title gives away the end.

The True Story of the Unknown Solider is a very early work by Tardi, the French cartoonist whose parents named him Jacques. It is one slim album with two stories in it: the title story, and one called "The National Razor." Both are the stories of a very young man, enthusiastic and energetic, strong in his passions for love and hate, and both stories have the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of a man like that.

The back-cover copy gives away all of the secrets of "True Story" - our hero is a pulp fictioneer turned Great War solider, traveling through visions in his own mind. Again, you won't learn this reading the story for at least half its length: you'll get the surrealism and the abrupt breaks without knowing why, much like the nameless protagonist. (So perhaps, if you're going to read this book, forget what I just said and avoid reading the back cover.)

"National Razor" is somewhat anti-war as well, though the title refers to the guillotine, which Tardi is also against. I found this one a bit more muddled, though less obviously surreal. Its hero has returned from war - which one is not clear, or important - and is out of synch with his life. He's either pulled into strange conspiracies or violently reacting to shell-shock, or maybe even both. He commits horrible crimes...I think, and is punished viciously for them.

At this stage in Tardi's work - see also his first published album, Farewell, Brindavoine - I get a sense that only the Tardi-character is important, that only the skinny guy in the bowler hat and mustache at the center of the story matters. Women are distractions or sex-objects, other men are threats or monsters, the world exists to torment and chafe That One Guy. Later it would all change; later he would have world with more real people in it. But, at this point, it's all id: all That One Guy and the things that happens to him.

These two stories are weird and thorny and a bit slapdash, in that way of a young energetic creator. I could dig in more to the details and themes, but that feels like nailing a butterfly to a wall: it's better to read and experience them. So do that, if this makes you interested at all.

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