Tag Archives: Edward Gauvin

A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié, translated by Edward Gauvin

Chinese LifeNo other word than epic describes this almost 700-page tome. It’s epic in content: six decades of one ordinary man’s extraordinary life, told through detailed, rich depictions in swirling black-and-white pen and ink that never seem to still. It’s epic in context: 60 years of tumultuous history in a country still in the throes of unrecognizable change. It’s epic in heft: just carrying it around should add a few sinews of muscle (although once you start, you just might read it through in a single sitting).

In 2005 Beijing, a foreign publisher and writer present a Chinese artist with a plan. His response? “My life as a comic book? Nonsense! I’m just one Chinese person among millions of others! Who’d be interested in the story of someone as ordinary as me?” he questions. But the pair are insistent: “… that’s exactly where the appeal is. Through the life of an individual like yourself, foreign readers could come to understand China.” In a clever twist of the final panel of that short preface, the child who was Li Kunwu – known by his childhood nickname, Xiao Li, as in “Young Li” – looks up at a faceless voice calling out to him, “Someone wants to see you! Odd fellow. Says he wants to send you to the 21st century.” And so the journey begins …

In “Book I: The Time of the Father,” Xiao Li’s parents meet, marry, and bring two children into an uncertain world. The People’s Republic of China has just been birthed and the young country is struggling itself into existence under the leadership of Chairman Mao. Xiao Li is born in 1955, miraculously survives the Great Famine of 1958 which lasts three years, followed  in 1966 by the brutal sufferings during “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Shockingly, Xiao Li’s devotion and loyalty to the Communist Party never wavers.

Mao’s death in 1976 – which ends Book I and begins “Book II: The Time of the Party” – brings forth sweeping changes of leadership .. and opens the country to a new ‘socialism’ depicted in the aptly named “Book III: The Time of the Money.” China is ready for reinvention, testing foreign ideas, welcoming foreign contact and exchange, and developing the seemingly unlimited potential of foreign investment.

As the contemporary Li looks back over the decades, he recognizes well that his China is “not the land of ‘Made in China,’ skyscrapers, the Olympic Games and the World Expo.” But of course, “we’re proud of what we’ve made, even if it’s not perfect yet. Especially since it doesn’t come from the profits of armed conquest, however legitimate. Or from the exploiting of rich subsoil or from inherited capital skillfully managed to bear fruit.

“You will find nothing but sweat here. From our brows and our children, to whom we bequeath lives that will also be made of hard work and sacrifice for we still have a long way to go down the road that will lead us from poverty, the road to development.”

Sharing Li’s journey proves unforgettably epic – that word once more! – because by the final page, you’ll feel like you, too, have borne witness to some of the greatest transformations of the 20th century … with the promise of more yet to come.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Translation, Chinese

A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached, translated by Edward Gauvin

Once again, I start from book’s end, with the “About the Author” page which introduces war-child Zeina Abirached, whose first 10 years of life were spent surviving Beirut’s civil war (1975-1990). As an adult, she happened upon a 1984 documentary that included “[a] woman whose home had been hit by the bombings [who] spoke a single sentence that startled her: ‘You know, I think maybe we’re still more or less safe here.’” That woman was Abirached’s own grandmother. “At that moment, she knew she had to tell the story of their lives in Beirut.”

Zeina and her younger brother are waiting for their parents to return home. They’re just a few streets away, visiting their maternal grandmother, but navigating the Beirut streets requires “complicated and perilous choreography.” The children have never known a life without war. Their apartment has been closed off room by room for safety, until all essentials have been piled into the small foyer. Not only does the family gather there, but their neighbors often arrive to wait out the shellings and bombings as it’s the safest space in the entire building.

Tonight, Anhala, an older woman who has raised multiple generations of the family with whom she has lived for decades, is the first to come down to make sure the children are safe on their own. To distract them, she gets the children to help bake a sfouf, her favorite cake. Next comes Chucri, the building’s go-t0, fix-it man, bearing blankets and washed lettuce (produce is scarce, as is the water to wash it). Then Ernest – who has never left the building since his twin brother’s death – taps on the door, ready with the next scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. The foyer is soon cozy with the rest of the building’s neighbors … but still the children wait for their parents to arrive safely home.

Over the course of a single night, Abirached reveals the challenging lives of each of the inhabitants. Told through the clear eyes of a young child, the absurdity of war is magnified – with innocent humor and horrific tragedy, not unlike Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis and her memories of her Iranian childhood in Iran. Abirached details the hours spent taking turns waiting to get an elusive dial tone on the phone: the parents smoking themselves into a smoke screen, the children laughing and playing clapping games until the sudden interruption of a connection. Meanwhile, Chucri spends his days in one snaking line after another for everything from bread to matches to gas for the building’s generator, hoping someday he might learn something about his long-missing father. Monsieur Khaled dreams up stories of life before war, insisting he’s from Texas, the “farthest place he could think of,” but chose life in Beirut only because of true love. The unique typeface – blunt, block capitals with a very distinct use of dots over the ‘i’ and inside the ‘o’ (think bullseye!) – is eerily representative of the random potshots happening outside, a reminder in every panel that war is never far.

While violence never ends, somehow, people must still live their lives … and survive. “To die  To leave  To return / It’s a game for swallows,” a graffitti-ed wall shouts. Even the youngest children recognize the absurdity of war … why doesn’t everyone else?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Translation, Lebanese, Middle Eastern