Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Ye by Guilherme Petreca

We are in a vaguely medieval world, with peasants in a countryside, bustling cities of commerce, and wide oceans plagued by pirates. If anyone rules this world, we don't know who: our viewpoint is at the level of those peasants, and any rulers don't impinge on their lives.

What matters, though, is The Colorless King, something like the devil figure of this world. The Colorless King is responsible for "all plagues and wars, all suffering and tragedy," which sounds to me like it neatly absolves human beings of any responsibility for bad things. We do see him in this world: he is real, he has power, and he does at least some of the things the humans say he does. How much those humans are responsible for their own actions, though - that's left vaguer than the definitive narration at the beginning of the book.

Our narrator and viewpoint is a young man. His name is Ye and so is the book's. The only thing he can say is his name, for a McGuffin-y psychological reason that the reader suspects will be solved by the end of his story. And, as he must, he is forced to venture out across that wide world, alone, to fix a burden put on him by The Colorless King. We see that burden laid; we know it is real. It's that kind of book - there are subtleties, but it's not possible to deny the central supernatural plot.

If we're familiar with stories, we suspect some of the shape of this one: Ye will travel widely, will be shifted unexpectedly, will be delayed and misrouted and abducted and capsized, as he heads towards a specific place and person we see him reach in the first few pages. We may also suspect a story like this must be circular, and that Ye will end up back in his native village, wiser and more experienced and ready to settle into that rural (paradise? rut?) for the rest of his now-blessed life.

If we expect things like that, we will not be mistaken.

Guilherme Petreca, a Brazilian cartoonist and art director, has apparently had a longer career in his native country, but Ye is the only work of his translated into English so far. It is the kind of universal, fabulist story that tends to travel well, so it was likely a good choice. It tells durable lessons in mostly the straightforward language of a folktale or legend. The art is just a bit mannered, the buildings with slightly askew proportions and the people with small features in large blocky faces, as if to signpost that the story is not entirely realistic, that we are to universalize it and not just think of it as this one story about this one young man. 

I could quibble with the details of the fable, but what good would that do? Fables tell particular kinds of lessons, and Ye fits that bill closely. It does what it sets out to do, and does it well, with art that's particularly strong at suddenly shifting from generally soft, pleasant colors into deep black spreads to indicate the workings of the Colorless King. I don't think Ye was meant, specifically, for younger readers, but it's the kind of book that would work well with them: simple enough, with enough depth, about the right kind of person on the right kind of journey.

All in all, I'd call it a success, and hope that more of Petreca's work has a chance to get translated.

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