Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Review: Bourbon Island, 1730

On a recent trip to France, I picked up a new graphic novel by one of my favorite authors, Lewis Trondheim. The upcoming English translation from First Second publishers will be called Bourbon Island 1730, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. In previous works, Trondheim has dealt with everything from offbeat sci-fi humor to Seinfeld-style character studies and almost Proustian philosophizing. And almost always, he has done so with funny animal characters. This time, he and co-writer Appollo take a look at a dark chapter in the history of the latter's home island, once called Bourbon but nowadays known as La Réunion.

The tale starts out as an adventurous tapestry of engaging characters: the ornithologist trying to find the maybe-not-extinct-yet dodo, his young assistant who is fascinated with the stories of Pirates on the island, the farmer's daughter who has romantic ideas about the escaped slaves living in the jungle while her father is a former pirate who took advantage of the French government's (historically authentic) amnesty offer.

The story soon becomes something much deeper, however. It does not fall into the trap of romanticizing the past. Its depiction of slavery is brutal and moving. Bourbon Island 1730 could be to slavery what Art Spiegelman's Maus was to the Holocaust.

I took the liberty to translate a dialog from around the middle of this 288 page (including the helpful historical notes in the back) black and white graphic novel.

A young Yoruba was recently captured in his West-African home and sold into slavery. From outside his jail, he is suddenly addressed in his own language by an unknown stranger...

- What's going to happen to me?

- Tomorrow you'll be sold on the market square. A planter will buy you with a lot of other slaves and take you to his plantation. You'll be a pick-axe negro. They'll give you a garment you'll wear a year. And you will sleep in a cabana with the others.
In the morning, before the sun rises, you will head out to the coffee fields. You will work all day without rest. If it's not fast enough, the commander will whip you. At nightfall, you return to the cabana. You'll be to beat to think of anything. You will sleep like a beast to try and recover before the new day.
Sundays, you may sometimes rest. But the white preachers will take you to church where you will pray to their God. Forget the old gods: they never did anything for you and nobody here knows them. The new god isn't any better, but one has to pretend.

- Is there no escape?

- The Malagasies sometimes escape to the mountains. But the Whites will soon chase them down. Others build logboats to try to make it back to the big island. But I don't know if any of them ever survived the crossing. But you, little head, where would you go? Your home is too far away. You have nowhere to go. If the whites catch you trying to flee, the first time they will cut off your ear. The second time, they will cut off your foot and the third time, they will kill you. As you see, it's well organized.

- What about you? Are you going to do something for me?

- No... Here, take this knife. Kill Dhermitte if you can. If not him, any white will do. Don't use it against yourself - kill somebody else with it. They need to know that they, too, can die like dogs at any moment. I'm going to leave you now. It was nice to talk in the language of the old country again...

Bourbon Island 1730 is solicited for October 28 from First Second. Ask for it at your local comic book store.

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