Forever. And Then More.
by Dan Nadel
Friday, July 16, 2010
For most of Jacques Tardi’s newly translated book, It Was the War of the Trenches, I was stuck thinking “it is what it is,” while moving from one deadly stack of horizontal panels to another. It’s a book that pounds on those stacks with such blunt force – such unbelievable seriousness – that all you can really do is recognize that Tardi knows that, yes, it was what it was. That war – it was horror.
While matter-of-fact about the regularity and objectivity of the gore, Tardi does not fetishize the “common.” He never goes in for the dramatic “gravitas” of my paragraph above: It’s a simple fact for him, but one shot through with a million stories of young men stumbling into death. We hardly learn what is being fought for, or who is even fighting, as It Was the War of the Trenches is comprised of a series of short stories, each focusing on relatively microscopic and isolated events in time during World War I. The soldiers are French and German, mostly, though it hardly matters. Replacing the usual macro-war narrative is the fight and the death. Tardi quite literally inflicts tunnel vision here: every panel is composed as though we’re moving right into it with blinders on – a face in profile framing a view, sad-eyed soldiers staring out from the page, an explosion demolishing the foreground. It’s a deceptive style as well, since the panels at first appear static – too resolutely composed – but then details emerge (a torn trouser and raised foot signaling the demise of Pierre on page 96, for example) to humanize the conflict and wipe away the filter between you and it.
And when you’re drawn into the world it’s hard not to rhapsodize about the drawing itself – Tardi’s gaze may be level, but his lines are sure and lush. His gentle contour line drawings are almost delicate, but then he fills them with a gray tone, or attaches them to nearly psychedelic intestines. It’s art that comes over you and stays with you – nicely offsetting an otherwise icy stare.
It’s a book that one could unpack for a long time – formally rigorous and sadly beautiful, of course, but also so very foreign to the American sensibility. I’m struck in particular by the absence of machismo in Tardi’s narrative. Soon after finishing It Was the War of the Trenches I read The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. It’s an excellent collection of reportage from Afghanistan and Iraq written over the last ten or so years. But it is also (necessarily?) a macho book. This guy is embedded with marines or out exploring the Taliban, and things are overwhelmingly crazy. That much is clear. Like Tardi, Filkins does not bother with the macro, instead focusing on the stories of small groups, towns or individuals. But as opposed to Tardi’s steady backwards look, Filkins is almost punch drunk, composing sentences to reflect his own immediate, present-tense experiences. I suppose I mention Filkins here because it seems like these books built from the pounding of experience on top of experience, hardly ever looking up, are rarely so graceful and so moving. Both should be read to somehow reckon with life among the dead…
I can’t speak to Filkins’ place in the firmament, but for me, finally, Tardi seems a master, and this work a rare and intensely humane book.
Labels: Jacques Tardi