Complex approach to cultural question
Craig San Roque’s the Long Weekend in Alice Springs
Adapted and drawn by Joshua Santospirito San Kessto Publications, 152pp, $35
IN 2004, psychotherapist Craig San Roque published an essay called The Long Weekend in Alice Springs. It appeared in an academic book intended to elaborate on a term coined by the editors: the cultural complex. Put simply, it’s an individual psychological complex applied to a group’s collective consciousness. This is not a widespread term, even among Jungian psychoanalysts, but the editors believed it could help explain group conflict, particularly in the aftermath of historical atrocities. San Roque’s essay was equal parts anthropological study and a personal response to a complicated place. ‘‘ I will write no more than it is possible to describe in this weekend in Alice Springs,’’ he explained. ‘‘ I will set down what the place makes me think.’’
Cut to 2006. Joshua Santospirito is working as a mental health nurse in indigenous communities in Alice Springs when he comes across the piece. He starts to draw the essay in a process he describes as ‘‘ a form of cathartic meditation’’ and, eight years on, we get one of the oddest and most rewarding Australian comics that has yet appeared.
Comics adaptations have a long and awkward history because most of them are very bad — think countless attempts to make classic novels approachable for teens, less interpretation and more a dumbing-down. But the good ones include two of the best graphic novels published in Australia this decade, Nicki Greenberg’s takes on Hamlet and The Great Gatsby. Far from distilling their sources into simpler products, Greenberg’s books complicate and embellish them richly.
Nobody would have guessed that a psychoanalytic essay would make an ideal text for graphic adaptation. The result, one might guess, would be a cultural curiosity, something more interesting to know about than actually to read.
But like Greenberg’s Hamlet, which exploits visual and conceptual tensions between the stage and the double-page spread, Santospirito’s Long Weekend uses its medium’s potential to modify the material at hand. It’s valuable and additive, rather than an abbreviation, and the result is a thrilling piece of narrative art.
It’s also an idiosyncratic approach to racial politics, something equally rare. After being called to treat a man who’s been spotted sitting in a Ford Cortina outside Alice Springs with the three-day-old body of a dog in the back seat, San Roque wants to work out if culturally defining past events carry over to the present as ‘‘ a psychological inheritance’’: do we reincarnate those events’ pathologies? The man has been molested, beaten, his car sabotaged and, for San Roque, he needs ‘‘ grief counselling, a living animal companion, and assurance of immortality’’. But is the man himself evidence of that assurance, only in a deeply troubling way?
The scholarship is hard to verify: we know sites do things to people, but when San Roque speculates that the dreaming event underlying Alice Springs is itself a kind of adaptation of the drama of Gilgamesh, the events are many more points removed than we are used to.
But you don’t need to agree with the theory to enjoy the book, which is ultimately a human story: ‘‘ Why not seek out a poetical history of humanity. We can save ourselves with imagination,’’ San Roque concludes. Either way, it’s a panoramic (and pan-temporal) theory that comics is amazingly well-suited to convey. San Roque thinks our ‘‘ collective unconscious was put together at a series of truckstop meetings on a long highway across plains of time’’, and that ‘‘ trucks from the past are still delivering’’. In comics, this is literally possible: time and space continually perturb each other, with the same sections of the page doing doubleduty to represent aspects of both.
Long Weekend also conducts an intervention in the limitations of the essay form. In an essay, voice is everything, including a vehicle for conveying space; but in Santospirito’s comic, we get both San Roque’s voice and San Roque’s body. San Roque is drawn as a blocky avatar with hypnotic eyes. When he notes a parallel between Alice Springs and ancient Mesopotamia, he briefly becomes the husband of Inanna, Sumerian goddess of love and war, who provides the world with summer and spring (and here, the summer is rendered as a gorgeous, if desolate, aerial shot of Alice Springs). When San Roque’s theory enlists the past, even the distant past, to illuminate the present, you can see how it’s a good match for Santospirito, who combines landscape, portraiture, geometry and literal mapmaking to bring the theory visual sense.
The book is beautifully presented on thick, uncoated paper and San Roque himself has written a follow-up essay, ‘‘ A Book of Sand’’, that is printed in the back. Developed as a passion project, Santosprito self-published The Long Weekend in Alice Springs after a successful crowd-funding campaign. Unique, surprising and tightly controlled, it deserves a broader readership than it seems likely to get.
Joshua Santospirito combines landscape, portraiture, geometry and mapmaking