Thursday, March 29, 2007

Shaun Tan's "The Arrival"

Sometimes, one of the most beautiful books you read doesn't have words. Like Shaun Tan's The Arrival. It's not a comic, as there is no accompanying text or speech balloons. The whole narrative is told through pictures, and as such is an absolute tour de force. Also, in terms of The Arrival's theme, it makes sense, very much so.

The graphic narrative (my best term: it's not a novel, nor a comic book, nor a picture book) tells the story of a migrant from the migrant's viewpoint (actually, I think it's meant to convey the migrant experience in general: so a migrant from any culture trying to resettle in any different culture about anytime in the last couple of centuries. Tan aims for the sky and -- for my money -- mostly succeeds), and therefore the language of the strange culture in which he arrives would initially be unintelligible anyway. So the lack of words substantially increases the migrant's sense of estrangement and bewilderment.

The technique works very well, as evidenced by this panel:
A native woman explains the migrant how to use the local transport system. It's depiction is crystal clear, while at the same time the exotic setting is highly evocative. A high wire balancing act, and Shaun Tan really pulls it off. Both the country from the migrant(s) -- later on he meets other immigrants -- and the country of arrival remain undeniably outlandish.

Still, there are strong indirect autobiographical hints (Shaun Tan's father came from Malaysia to Australia), such as the huge dragon tails in the picture below from the migrant's home country, to the strange animals in the country of arrival (see the two animals in the top right drawing of the above panel), reminiscent of Australia's marsupials, who are unique in the world.

The nameless -- but definitely not faceless! -- migrant meets other migrants who did not leave their country because of poverty (which supposedly was the migrant's motive), but because of repression, as depicted in the haunting drawing below:

Magnificent stuff, and this high level of accomplishment is maintained throughout. With reluctance, I'll refrain from posting much more gorgeous drawings from Shaun Tan's website, excepting this final panel that is one of the best renderings of the passing of the seasons that I have ever seen:

I can't recommend this wonderful book high enough. I bought it together with the spiffy Shaun Tan calendar, and I urge you to check out the vendors on the bottom of Shaun Tan's webpage, or you can order both from Amazon UK.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know this was an older post, but I just finished "The Arrival" and was looking for buzz about it online and came across your post.
That was truly one of the most amazing...was your term "graphic narrative?"...that I have ever 'read.' Profound. I'm glad I found it in my library. Thanks for your post about it. Nice to know others had just as moving an experience I had while reading the book.