Saturday, February 10, 2007

Guy Delisle's uncommon travel writing

I've just finished Shenzhen, the third of Canadian graphic storyteller Guy Delisle's travelogues. Like his recent account of North Korea in Pyongyang, it's a funny, deft and at-times slapstick survey of a Westerner's time spent in a cold and lonely place.

Some of the absurdity, and most of the menacing Orwellian nature of Pyongyang are missing from this piece, making Shenzhen more personal, more about the traveller than the place travelled to. Little of this fast-growing city inserts itself into the book, despite its title. Perhaps this is by design. From what Delisle can tell us, Shenzhen the city is a nondescript place, from the bare interiors of every apartment he is a guest in, to the plain high-rises being built up a-floor-per-day:

Panel from Pyongyang:

While in the DPRK Delisle found it impossible to turn his head without locating evidence of the Great Leader, politics are few and far between in Shenzhen. The author recounts just one exchange on the subject of communism, when a co-worker spots Delisle's Vietnamese star-logoed shirt and remarks that he is "scared of Communists." China's power and stature are never truly manifested in this story; the book is concerned far more with the micro-level dealings of the animator hired on to supervise a staff he cannot directly communicate with.

Throughout the course of the book, Delisle finds easy but solitary retreat in a Western-style gym, training his muscles for no specific use. He lusts for side trips to more Westernized locales, and finds the mold growing on his desk more interesting than the stacks of animation sequences he is hired to supervise. As boring as Delisle may find his work, the employment of the animator's eye is really the story of Shenzhen. It makes sense. The limitations of spoken and written language, and the relative richness and universality of a visual one, are the subtext of Delisle's works. While the Mandarin characters drawn by Delisle look as noisy and unintelligible as they must have sounded to him, his wide panels, his close-ups, and his gift for expression speak volumes. The story's conclusion finds the author at dinner with several businessmen and he is able to pick up the cadence and facial clues to a joke told in a foreign language. Delisle remarks, "that makes one thing we have in common." But generally that which we do not share, and an accompanying homesickness and solitude, dominates the book.

It would be easy to accuse Delisle of Lost in Translation-style orientalism, of approaching his subject with humor in order to maintain some authority and distance in the relationship between himself and that which he cannot understand. Delisle employs a healthy does of self-deprecation to soften these impressions, as when he earnestly slurps up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in Hong Kong. And the cartoonist, for all his weariness, recognizes a colonialism in his acclimation to absurd levels of service by the end of the trip. It's a not- uncommon feeling for any Western traveller out of his or her element. There's always a feeling of that which is not quite right, and the accompanying feeling of guilt or impoliteness in pointing it out. It's a question of perspective, and Delisle is willing to re-visit his and view from others, even if in the end he makes plain which he prefers. Telescoping views and reductions, a gift for movement and motion -- these tools of cartooning serve the story so well, allowing the awkward narrator to exist simultaneously at the center of the reader's world, and in the middle of a place too big for him. In Shenzhen, Delisle has crafted endearing, problematic, rapturous reading and viewing, and the frames flow by with ease.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it's good to mention that his trip to Shenzhen was in 1999 which was a very different China that we know now.

It's interesting to read this book in 2009 and see the evolution that the country experienced.