Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yvan Alagbé's Nègres jaunes




I read a lot of essays, reviews, articles about comics over the years... Sadly these still form most of my "to read" pile (I say "sadly" because, time not being stretchable and all... comics criticism expelled poetry, for instance, from my reading habits; yes Lídia, if you're still there, this still happens!). Comics scholars come from a few different fields and I enjoy every approach, but my favorite one is the formalist with a link to content (i. e.: someone who discovers a clever formal device with a communicative purpose that I, in my absent minded reading - or, some would argue, if they cared, my I. Q. impaired condition -, had not noticed).
From the top of my head I remember a few essays of the aforementioned kind by: Jan Baetens (about Hergé's Le secret de la Licorne - The Secret of the Unicorn), Pascal Lefèvre (about Kiriko Nananan's "Kisses"), Thierry Gröensteen (in his book The System of Comics), Joseph Witek (about Dean Haspiel's "91101" and a Brian Biggs' untitled short 9/11 story - even if I don't buy his essentialism entirely), Bruno Lecigne (about "La bascule à Charlot" - the guillotine - by Jacques Tardi, for instance), Pedro Moura (about Dominique Goblet's Souvenir d'une journée parfaite - remembrance of a perfect day)... you know?, the heavy weights!... but also by others that are more obscure critics (like Sylvianne Rémi-Giraud about Fabrice Neaud's Journal). Even so there were three occasions in which I said to myself: wow!, that's impressive! I mean:
1) Jacques Samson, "Stratégies modernes d'énonciation picturale en bande dessinée" (modern strategies of pictorial enunciation in comics) in Bande dessinée récit et modernité (comics, narrative and modernity), Futuropolis, 1988: 117 - 138; in which the author discovers a triadic rhythm in Jacques Tardi's C'etait la Guerre des tranchées ("It Was the War of the Trenches", published in English by Drawn & Quarterly - in Drawn & Quarterly Vol. 2, # 1 - 3, Autumn, 1994 - May, 1995; translation by Kate Sibbald; originally published as a graphic novel by Casterman, 1993, after prepublication in (A Suivre) magazine (to be continued - # 50, 53, 54, 58, 1983, # 181, 185, 189, 1993, and Le trou d'obus - the shell hole - Images d'Epinal, 1984); most of C'était la guerre des tranchées' pages are composed of three equal strips as wide as the hyperframe; Jacques Samson links this layout (and other triadic instances) with the French flag, the tricolor, which symbolizes the values of the French bourgeois revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity): grand words totally subverted in this absurd war (WWI); in the end what really happens in most wars is that poor people die to defend rich peoples' interests (soldiers die to defend the right of their people to be exploited by someone talking their own language?);
2) Marc Avelot, "L'encre blanche" (the white ink) in Bande dessinée récit et modernité (157 - 173) in which the author does a close reading of a blank double-page spread (!) in Martin Vaughn-James' The Cage (Coach House Press, 1975); in a book about how ephemeral and inadequate our communicating devices are, how can the writer/artist be self-referential about the book and the page?; as Marc Avelot pointed out in the aforementioned essay it can be read as a real page - in Saussurian terms a signifier - that's also a fictitious page - a signified); the thing signifies (it stands for) itself: Vaughn-James managed to write with no ink, hence "the white ink" of the essay's title; brilliant!;
3) and more recent: Hugo Frey, ""For All To See": Yvan Alagbé's Nègres jaunes and the Representation of the Contemporary Social Crisis in the Banlieue" in Yale French Studies number 114: Writing and the Image Today, 2008: 116 - 129. Hugo Frey comments that the black people's faces in the book are depicted by thick black brushstrokes when they're with white people (the gaze of the racist who's obsessed by color) and they're just outlined when they're among each other. (I will refine his thought saying that there are degrees of racism and "color blindness" in the book: Mario's mother is the worst racist and Claire - a revealing name -, Alain's girlfriend, is the least racist; even if she dates a black man she's not totally oblivious of his skin color...)
"Nègres jaunes"' (yellow black people) first version was published in Amok's Le cheval sans tête magazine (the headless horse) # 3 - 5 (October, 1994 - May, 1995). It was considerably altered by Yvan Alagbé for the definitive album edition (Amok, October, 1995).
The characters are all a bit lost in Nègres jaunes because they have to adjust to an hostile new culture. Mario is an ex-harki, an Algerian who sided with the French during the Algerian War (1954 - 1962). He's also a very lonely old man who is in denial of his latent homosexual desire for Alain. The latter belongs to a Beninese family who suffer because of a racist society and because they've lost their roots (Sam, the draughtsman, an Alagbé's alter ego?, we don't know that well; he's a very private person, lost among his drawings, lost in his own fantasies). I may be wrong (if one can be wrong when interpreting a polysemic text), but that's how I decode the title: African immigrants living in Europe didn't turn white, but they're not entirely brown anymore, they've been a bit bleached, they're "yellow." No one in the book is more "yellow" than Mario though... He wants desperately to reconnect with Africa, but he can't... Like Adam expelled from paradise after the original sin, Mario can't be a true African again after being a traitor. Traitors, as Dante reminded us, were put on the ninth and last circle of hell... their sin, like Judas Iscariot's, the worst traitor of them all, can't be redeemed... Despised by both sides their exile is absolute because it is an exile from the human race...

1. Jacques Tardi's "C'était la guerre des tranchées" as the cover of (A Suivre) # 185, June, 1993;
2. Martin Vaughn-James explains in this drawing how to link a The Cage blank double-page spread with the next one in order to interpret the former as a page that signifies itself because it turns out to be an extreme close up of one in a series of drawn pages: Bande dessinée récit et modernité, Futuropolis, 1988: 172.
3. Nègres jaunes' cover: Amok, October 1995; Alain is torn because Claire is his sun, but she's a cold sun ("he dreams of women with wide hips" - translation indicated bellow; all other translations are mine except for Hergé's book title, "It Was the War of the Trenches," "The System of Comics.")

PS Ellen Lindner and Stephen Betts translated Nègres jaunes:


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