Translation by Alberto Gª Marcos, Joana Carro and César Sánchez
Logrono, 2022, 256
The lesson that can be drawn from that evening in which Christopher Columbus became “the first man to stand an egg up” is not the mere procedure of cracking it lightly so that it would stand upright on its base, but the more universal which is summed up in “ah, okay, that could be done like this”, accessible and dazzling, and it is used for almost any occasion in which we want to solve something. For example, it comes to mind when we look at the drawings of some select cartoonists. What a way to speak with the lines, what drawings, how good they are in their unique particularity; I had never imagined, until now that I see them for the first time, that the world could be reproduced in this very particular way, and yet how natural, how expressive and even how recognizable they are, now that I see them for the first time: of course!
Well, this big clear has assaulted me when reading and looking at the novel in vignettes Arsenius Schrauwenby the Belgian Olivier Schrauwen, which the publishing house Fulgencio Pimentel has just reprinted in a single volume, after having published it in three notebooks ten years ago. For those who have not read it at this time, I will summarize that Olivier Schrauwen recreates here the adventures lived by his grandfather Arsène, who in 1947, at the age of 26, embarked from the port of Antwerp bound for the Belgian Congo, with the intending to visit a cousin of his and help him in his bizarre business dealings.
Would grandfather Arsène tell his grandson, after the years, the insane adventures he lived in Africa? We often say “I’ll tell my grandchildren about this”, when we experience extraordinary things. The current approach is that it is the grandson who is in charge of recounting the tribulations of a Belgian in the Belgian Congo, and already from the days on board the tone of feverish hallucination in which the story will take place is established. I doubt very much that the grandfather, after the years, would choose to pass on his story to dwell on the impressions that the grandson develops, because many are psychological processes that forgetfulness caused by the passage of time or modesty would make it difficult to confess. Arsène is a somewhat hesitant character, a bit reckless, who barely knows anything about life, even stunned at times, and precisely those lackluster qualities seem to help him come out on top whenever things go wrong or require more or less behavior from him. less heroic. Not knowing what’s going on is often the safest way to get around the world. The circumstance that the protagonist is the grandfather of the author of the book does not seem to affect the story at all, because, except that relationship is mentioned on several occasions, there is nothing in the story that indicates that that trip, an initial stumble, determine the course of the family. But this is perhaps the most charming thing about the tribute: the fantasy that the grandson develops from that man precisely because he later became his grandfather. That vignette by vignette we know that there is an emotional bond between cartoonist and drawn gives a much more moving tone to the story. Is it because while we attend these strange adventures we are thinking “it could be my grandfather”?
But in reality there is something that unites them, and it is on the first page, in which Olivier introduces himself and his novel in four vignettes, and says “from my grandfather I inherited the nose, the eyes and the dimple of the chin”, and thus not only exposes the link but also establishes the drawing style that will later be displayed in the book. He first portrays himself and in the next vignette he rescues the nose, the eyes and the dimple of the chin and plants them inside the clean silhouette of an egg; he remembers those books in which children are taught to draw from basic geometric figures. This resource as a first-time cartoonist will be used much later as a very expressive, very dramatic element. For example, a character who in a vignette only it serves to convey information, he appears with a schematic, interchangeable face, until the moment when another of the characters notices him, addresses him and thus perceives his individuality, which means that in the next vignette the first acquires unique features and badges. A brief treatise on human dignity could be drawn from here, on how the attention we devote to each other is what humanizes us and rescues us from the indistinct mass. In these often grotesque drawings, it is transmitted immediately. Could Olivier Schrauwen have taken it from the Flemish altarpieces?
In the same way, in the brief period between vignette and vignette, we went from witnessing the objective report of some facts to its transformation into a psychic metaphor. This is recurrent: birds come out of the fly and there are those who feel like a plucked chicken about to be put in the oven, but before there have been birds and roast chickens realthat they were objective before sneaking into the subjectivity of the characters. Also from what we notice in passing, we assemble our nightmares and daydreams on a daily basis, and perhaps for this reason we can recognize the transfer inside-out, and ultimately its dissolution, that these seemingly pedestrian drawings tell us.
Another basic and very characteristic resource of the book is the change of ink, blue and tile, which are rarely mixed in a single vignette. The change in color coincides with changes in temperature or mood, and draws us into new narrative tones, just as characters are drawn from one adventure to another without seeming to master them. We have no choice but to submit to those color changes that occur outside of our will, and thus, although many things happen in this story, none of them have been resolved in an irreversible way: they are like absurd events that punctuate the days without let’s understand what they come for. Although we are always granted epiphanies: in the case of Arsène, everything that has to do with the woman he falls in love with, Marieke, his cousin’s wife, the character that appears to us in the most mysterious drawings ( which perhaps indicates the deep subjectivity of the whole story, after all).
Finally, Arsène returns to Belgium like someone waking up from a dream, and perhaps the summary of his story could be the same with which the girl Zazie ends Raymond Queneau’s novel when asked what she has done: “J’ai vieilli”.
And the summary of the lesson above could be: “Do it as you see fit.”
Translation by Alberto Gª Marcos, Joana Carro and César Sánchez
Fulgencio Pimentel, Logroño, 2022