An author and illustrator meditates on the need to remember the past in order to understand the present.
As a 10-year-old growing up on the banks of the Seine in the 1960s, Pajak “dreamt of a book mixing words and pictures: snippets of adventure, random memories, maxims, ghosts, forgotten heroes, trees, the raging sea.” But, as he puts it, “my book died every day.” Years later, he found his theme: “The evocation of erased History and of the war of time,” by which he means “the war waged by a present stripped of its past, crumbled into an improbable future, be it radiant or disenchanted.” Most pages display Pajak’s black-and-white drawings followed by short paragraphs. The author writes of the many artists and writers who grappled with the 20th century’s most significant questions, most notably the fascism and anti-Semitism embodied not only in figures like Hitler and Mussolini, but also in a pair of Pajak’s boarding school classmates, one of whom performed the Nazi salute when teachers left the room and “was always fulminating against the Jews.” Among the figures Pajak cites are Samuel Beckett, artist Bram van Velde, and Walter Benjamin, especially Benjamin’s time in Spain before the Spanish Civil War and his belief that “the supposed universality of History lacked the mute voice of the oppressed.” If some drawing-prose combinations are too on-the-nose—a picture of a fort as the author notes that Benjamin likened Andre Gidé’s thoughts to a fort—others offer witty contrasts, as when he pairs childhood memories of the smell of his grandmother’s flat with a drawing of himself smoking as a young boy. Some of the combinations are chilling: A drawing of an emaciated man in a concentration camp appears on the same page on which Pajak cites Benjamin’s awareness of the rise of anti-Semitism among French intellectuals.
A complex portrait of the nature and power of narrative.