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A review a day: You Are There

It’s another Jacques Tardi-drawn comic! All hail Tardi! (And hey! I get to break out the Not-Safe-For-Work warning! Just so you know!)

The girl pulling back her veil to show the dog face is the freakiest page in the book!

Yesterday, I looked at an adaptation by Jacques Tardi of a book written in the 1970s. Today, we look at a comic that actually came out in the 1970s and is now back in print! It all works out!

You Are There was written by Jean-Claude Forest, who is best-known for this (well, the comic on which it was based), and drawn by Monsieur Tardi. Kim Thompson translated this sucker, and Fantagraphics published this bad bear. You will be charged no more than $26.99 for this, which isn’t bad considering it’s 163 big-ass pages chock full of grand Tardi art.

This is a very strange comic that doesn’t completely work. Forest, channeling his inner Mark Twain, wrote in an early book edition about You Are There: “No one should see in Ici même a pamphlet, a satire on our society or the men who represent its political regime. Nor did I have any specific intention of mocking man’s attachment to property. If this attachment leads to grotesque situations in this book, it does so no more than politics, law, groceries or fornication; it serves through its ramblings a story, a plot whose basis lies elsewhere and was intended, so far as I was concerned, to speak of something entirely different.” If that’s so, it’s too bad, because You Are There works best as an absurdist critique of society and politics. It’s a rambling, occasionally surreal look at a man who is crazy only because a crazy society says he is; who then is really insane? Perhaps Forest meant it as a love story, and there is a romance at its heart, but the romance is just as odd as the rest of the book, so it’s unclear what, exactly, Forest was saying with this comic.

The situation is certainly interesting: Arthur There, the protagonist (and hence the title of the book) lives in a place called Mornemont, which, as we learn early on, was once a vast tract of land of which he is the sole heir. Over the decades and centuries, however, Mornemont has been subdivided into smaller plots of land, each owned by a different family. Arthur is embroiled in a lawsuit to get all the land back, but in the meantime, his one victory has given him ownership of all the walls and the gates through them. He lives in a narrow shack built on one of the walls and makes a living by charging a toll every time someone wants a gate open, gates to which he has the only keys. Throughout the book, he rarely comes down off the walls – the residents, he believes, would kill him for trespassing. His lawsuit to reclaim the rest of the land, however, continues throughout the book. In Paris, the president fears that he’s going to lose the election, so he begins making plans to hole up somewhere and plan his triumphant return. Naturally, he picks Mornemont, but the reason he does is clever and changes Arthur’s life quite significantly.

Ultimately, this is a story of a man fighting against the forces of conformity, as Arthur desperately tries to remain his own man. Everyone wants him to change, and even if some of the things that happen in the book are in his own mind, he clings to a dream when a lesser (or, perhaps, saner) man would have given up on them. He falls for Julie, who’s the daughter of one of the couples living on “his” land, and their relationship is bumpy, to say the least. Julie is a bit crazy, too, in a different way than Arthur. She has what we might categorize as Tourette’s, with no internal filters to stop her from saying whatever’s on her mind or doing whatever’s on her mind. Arthur’s behavior is the polar opposite of Julie’s, as he keeps everything inside him. This provides the very odd climax of the book, at which their personalities have switched places, to a degree. Julie believes in nothing, while Arthur believes in everything, so when they’re on a row boat, about to escape from their pasts, suddenly things are different for both of them. The final image of the book, a surreal summation of events in the book, becomes a comment on what men will do to change their lives. It’s not a particularly happy ending, but it is a logical ending.

The one thing you must deal with as you commence reading the book is that, even with a fairly standard narrative, Forest writes oddly. Apparitions appear for no reason. The scene shifts quickly in the middle of a page with no narrative tags to show it. Julie and Arthur often appear to be saying simply what’s on their minds and not actually talking to each other. Julie’s frankness about nudity and sex is unusually disconcerting (not because she likes sex and being naked, but because of the way she’s so aggressive about it, especially in public). There’s a strange, detached tone to the book, so even when serious things are occurring, Forest presents it absurdly, making it difficult to penetrate the author’s intent (if, indeed, he had any). It’s a complex work that keeps the reader at arm’s length, which makes it hard to love.

Tardi, however, is stunning. The strange world of Mornemont and its walls are fully realized, with astonishing detail that makes Arthur’s desires even more concrete. The warren of homes and barriers along which Arthur runs provide a surreal backdrop for Arthur’s fantasies, which Tardi simply places in the panels with no preamble, integrating the hallucinations so well into the “real” that they occasionally catch us off guard. It’s a beautiful evocation of how Arthur sees the world. The stolid governmental world crashes against the private lives of the politicians, a theater of fluid sexuality and vice. At the end of the book, Tardi turns the tenants of Mornemont into costumed caricatures, medieval archetypes, and fools, who attack Arthur’s home because they’re tired of his lawsuit. Tardi pulls out all the stops, with the army moving in and the homeowners turning riotous and the two worlds crashing together. The absurdity of Forest’s script is brought to amazing life, from Arthur’s odd gatekeeper outfit to Julie’s unabashed sexuality – at one point she sucks her thumb, and it’s a creepily erotic sight. It’s a tremendous work of art, heightening the weirdness of the narrative very well.

I would recommend You Are There because it’s a thoughtful look at the pressure of conformity and what drives a man mad. But it is a difficult comic, because Forest isn’t interested in making too much sense, even though it’s fairly easy to figure out “what happens.” Tardi is fantastic and makes the book even wackier, which isn’t a bad thing. I have to warn you about it, but it’s definitely worth a look.

7 Comments

I have to agree with you review. That’s an uneven work (at least in terms of writing, Tardi’s art is as wonderful as ever), with some bits that don’t work as expected, like the ham-fisted political allegory.

Maybe it made more sense in context (France on the late 70s). I don’t know. It did win the Best Writing award at Angoulême (1980, for books published in 1979).

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Interesting review. It sounds like you’d recommend West Coast Blues before You Are There as a first Tardi work to sample. Is that correct?

Grah, Kim Thomspon translation the bane of my existence*! The fellow may be able to speak a bunch of languages, but his work leaves me cold, always so awkward and stilted – I don’t know if it’s because he translates too literally or he just has a shit ear for dialogue, but again, grah!

*Slight overstatement

RangeLife: Yeah, definitely. West Coast Blues is better. I recommend both of them because of Tardi’s art and the fact that this has its moments and isn’t terrible, but West Coast Blues is the book I’d start with.

I don’t know, Layne. You’d have to ask Pedro or someone else who speaks French and English how literal Thompson is!

Well, I don’t have the english version to compare. Looking at the VERY small samples we have here (and on the West Coast Blues reviews), I would say that the translation, albeit faithful, isn’t completely literal. The dialogue DOES sound a bit stilted at times, I think (and take into accunt that I’m neither a french nor english native speaker!), but he aced the longer narration pieces on the West Coast Blues sample.

But take into account that a translation job has two phases: Translation itself and adaptation. The second part is important to make a text “flow” better on its new language. When I did translation work, my editor (who didn’t speak a word of french) did that part and it worked quite well, maybe that’s what is missing on Kim Thompson’s translations (with him being his own editor and all that), a second opinion.

I must add that I have the utmost respect for Thompson, who is one of the big promoters of european comics on the US and one of the very best editors in the industry. The continuing existence of Fantagraphics owes a lot to his efforts! He was the guy who had the idea of publishing the Complete Peanuts collections, for example. That not just gave Fanta the extra cash it sorely needed but also started the current wave of newspaper strip reprints, which to me is the best thing on US comics on the last few years! The man must be praised for his accomplishments, not taken down for his shortcomings!

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Oh, I’ll take him down, Pedro, I’ll take him down hard!

Kidding, of course; Thompson definitely deserves every bit of praise he gets for his efforts in promoting European work and reintroducing the historic and obscure – and as it turns out, my criticism of his translations was based largely on Fanta’s run of Sampayo and Muñoz’s Sinner, many issues of which weren’t translated by Thompson at all!

Speaking a little (Very, very little) french myself, I tried to find a few examples of the original and the translated editions for some compare and contrast, but came up with bupkiss. As it is, YAH’s surreal/satirical bent probably wouldn’t make it an ideal choice for such an exercise anyway.

So, to sum up, mea culpa & and a full retraction!

Do note that Alack Sinner, like all Muñoz/Sampayo books, is itself originally written in Spanish, so there is ANOTHER translation layer over all that!

I’ve the french intégrales and they are still sitting unread on my shelf. Sigh, there aren’t enough hours on a day…

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

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