Com­plex ap­proach to cul­tural ques­tion

Craig San Roque’s the Long Week­end in Alice Springs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott Ron­nie Scott

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.