Per­ils of Pauline in an Ori­en­tal­ist play­ground

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cefn Rid­out

AFRE­QUENT crit­i­cism of the comics medium is that the pic­tures deny readers the imag­i­na­tive space to en­gage fully with the story. Habibi, the third graphic novel from award-win­ning Amer­i­can writer Craig Thompson, will do lit­tle to as­suage those con­cerns.

While it does give readers some work to do, Habibi de­fi­antly demon­strates the se­duc­tive power of the line. A line that draws to­gether past and present, scrip­ture and his­tory, text and im­age, ink and blood. A line that in­scribes Arabesque pat­terns and Is­lamic cal­lig­ra­phy with the same grace that it fleshes out the hu­man form and brings to life a fully re­alised world. And it’s on ex­trav­a­gant dis­play through­out Habibi, a sprawl­ing fa­ble that takes its cue from The Ara­bian Nights.

The story is set in Wana­to­lia, a fic­tional Mid­dle East­ern king­dom that strad­dles an­cient and mod­ern cul­tures. A smart, spir­ited young girl, Dodola, is sold into mar­riage and later kid­napped by slave traders. At her auc­tion, she flees with Zam, a ti­morous or­phaned boy she calls ‘‘ Habibi’’ (Ara­bic for ‘‘ my dar­ling’’), and finds sanc­tu­ary in an aban­doned boat in the mid­dle of the desert. Here they live for nine years as Dodola en­ter­tains and en­light­ens Zam with tales from the Ko­ran and the Bi­ble, while se­cretly pros­ti­tut­ing her­self to pass­ing car­a­vans for food.

One day, Zam fol­lows her and watches help­lessly as she is raped, some­thing that shames and haunts him for the rest of his life. Soon af­ter, Dodola is ab­ducted into ser­vice at the Sul­tan’s harem, leav­ing Zam home alone. Over the next six years, their lives take trau­matic twists and turns as they inch to­wards re­union.

A seven-year labour of love, Thompson’s mag­num opus is, above all, a novel of ideas — per­haps too many. Con­structed as a grand ro­mance pitched pre­car­i­ously be­tween Ori­en­tal­ist fan­tasy and magic re­al­ism, with for­ays into satire, so­cio-po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary and his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis, Habibi strug­gles to ne­go­ti­ate these the­matic shift­ing sands, end­ing up stranded on the au­thor’s heroic am­bi­tions.

And the spec­tac­u­larly ill-fated pro­tag­o­nists fare lit­tle bet­ter. Dodola’s gift for sto­ry­telling and knack for find­ing trou­ble, cast her as Scheherazade by way of The Per­ils of Pauline. Mean­while, some of the harsh­est judg­ment is vis­ited on the hap­less, pubescent Zam, whose crush­ing guilt at lust­ing af­ter Dodola, his sur­ro­gate mother/sis­ter, drives him to des­per­ate mea­sures. This only ac­cen­tu­ates the mount­ing sense of mis­ery and some­what in­dul­gent self-loathing that weighs heav­ily on the book.

How­ever, it’s Thompson’s cen­tral con­ceit — con­struct­ing an Ori­en­tal­ist play­ground to ad­dress se­ri­ous is­sues such as sex­u­al­ity, re­li­gion, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and cap­i­tal­ism — that un­der­scores the book’s iden­tity cri­sis. And he’s done him­self few favours by con­ced­ing to ‘‘ hav­ing fun (with) Ori­en­tal­ism as a fairy­tale genre like cow­boys and In­di­ans’’, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously chal­leng­ing the genre’s in­her­ent racism and misog­yny. In­deed, it’s of­ten tricky to tell whether Thompson is lam­poon­ing Ori­en­tal­ist tropes or ex­ploit­ing them, es­pe­cially in his treat­ment of the fre­quently dis­robed Dodola.

This is not to doubt Thompson’s sin­cer­ity, just his ap­proach. Habibi is, in part, a ri­poste to the uninformed anti-mus­lim sen­ti­ment that swept the US bi­ble belt in the wake of Septem­ber 11.

It is also a sweep­ing love story with poignant mo­ments that rise above the book’s au­tho­rial agenda, and which are matched by mo­ments of sub­lime sto­ry­telling and an as­ton­ish­ingly sus­tained vis­ual vir­tu­os­ity that holds your at­ten­tion over the long haul — al­most. At 672 pages, the re­cur­rent themes and mo­tifs ex­hausted my pa­tience and sym­pa­thy, and the ob­ses­sively beau­ti­ful brush­work even­tu­ally drove me to dis­trac­tion.

Thompson’s pre­vi­ous books, Good­bye Chunky Rice (1999), a bit­ter­sweet med­i­ta­tion on friend­ship and loss, and Blan­kets (2003), a deeply per­sonal, highly sen­ti­men­tal ac­count of his first love and drift from evan­gel­i­cal faith, gar­nered much de­served praise. They not only show­cased Thompson’s ma­tur­ing artistry but also his will­ing­ness to tackle thorny sub­jects such as spir­i­tu­al­ity, some­thing rarely seen in comics.

In Habibi, Thompson emerges as a graphic novelist in full com­mand of his craft with bound­less in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and chutz­pah, but with­out the re­straint and in­sight to in­te­grate his art and ideas into a less showy and more co­he­sive and com­pelling work. Cefn Rid­out is a Syd­ney-based comic book writer and ed­i­tor.

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