Olivier Tallec, a Frenchman, named the protagonists of his wordless picture book, Waterloo & Trafalgar, for two failed Napoleonic battles. He painted one in blue and the other in orange so they’d be “immediately identifiable and unmistakable.” To hear Tallec tell it, his story was inspired by the walls that come between people, and the walls between countries.
In this electoral season, find peace in picture books.
We loved that you could see blue in the lens of orange Trafalgar’s telescope, and orange in the lens of blue Waterloo’s telescope. Even the flowers near Trafalgar are orange, and the butterflies close to Waterloo blue. Did that idea of staking out territory come to you early on?
These little details came to me gradually [as] I was working on the illustrations, and the idea of territory came to me. When walking through the countryside in France, I have always found myself confronted by the notion of property. People build walls to define what belongs to them.
Also, for a long time, I have wanted to work on a story about a wall. [Then] when I was listening to the radio during the war in Libya, a journalist was recounting how the two sides had been advancing-retreating-advancing-retreating for months, and currently the situation was stagnant. It was at that moment that I said to myself, there’s something to be done with this!
For much of your career in picture books, you have invented characters and scenes from other people’s words. Here, you tell a story but do not use words. Does that free you up?
I love entering into other people’s stories! Illustrations should show those things that are not in the text, and, inversely, there should be things in the text that are not in the illustration. I often say that the illustrator is the co-author.
When I began Waterloo & Trafalgar, I already had a story in mind, so I began by trying to write it. But I quickly understood that that was not going to work; I wasn’t going to find the space between the text and image that is so important to me. I imagined it as an animated film—in sequences of images. The book also alludes to silent films and to an Italian cartoon series by Osvaldo Cavandoli called La Linéa (The Line), which I adored as a child. It’s about a character made from a simple line for whom a ton of things happen without a word.
Most of Waterloo and Trafalgar’s time is spent watching each other. Do you believe that people who want to make war are simply looking for an opportunity to start one?
Above all, it’s the idea that these two poor soldiers don’t know why they are there. Perhaps at one time they knew, but they have forgotten why they are fighting. They have been told that they are enemies. Several years ago, I found myself at the border between North and South Korea. The soldiers who were watching each other at a distance of several meters made a deep impression on me. It was both an absurd and dramatic situation. These soldiers are exactly the same! They are several meters apart, they could cross the dividing line and try to play a card game!
Trafalgar takes a childlike pleasure in designing activities for a snail. Only after Waterloo cooks the escargot (and tosses the empty shell back to Trafalgar) do they have their first real battle—of words.
The moment when the snail gets eaten is the crucial moment of the book. Until this moment, it’s status quo, with each observing the other. But from the moment one takes what belongs to the other—it’s war. Children function in the same way: From the moment that I take your toy without asking, it’s trouble!
Their next big argument happens in the spring, over music.
This is because at the moment I have a neighbor who listens to his music very loud. When he does that, I’m ready to explode! At times, lived experience makes its way into books!
At the end, we see that Trafalgar and Waterloo have walled themselves in. The animals and trees outside the walls are harmoniously integrated in orange and blue. Was the world outside always harmonious? Or is it harmonious because Trafalgar and Waterloo are at peace?
For me spiritually the world has always been harmonious on the outside. But these soldiers never trouble themselves about it because they are too absorbed to see it and think only about themselves and their little war.
But I love books that have several possible readings, so we also can imagine that the harmony in the outside world is a result of the peace between Waterloo & Trafalgar.