Lucie Lomová – Divoši / Savages

Posted: June 8, 2013 in criticism
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We last looked at Lucie Lomová’s first graphic novel, Anna Chce Skočit, or Anna Wants to Jump. Published first in French, it’s Czech edition won the Komiks Fest Muriel Award and the Zlatá Stuha, or Gold Ribbon, on the year of its release. Its success persuaded its French publisher Edition L’an 2 to commission a second, more ambitious and, since it is full colour, financially riskier graphic novel, Divoši, or Savages. Her talent now fully recognised at home, the Czech edition, which, I believe to have been published this time concurrently with the French, was supported financially by the Czech Ministry of Culture and to my knowledge remains the only domestic full colour adult graphic novel.
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I mentioned initially passing over Divoši in my last post, having a preference for black and white illustrations. I came to Anna Chce Skočit fresh, knowing nothing about its author. In the course of writing the first piece and looking a little deeper into the background of both of these graphic novels, I have learned a lot more, listened to Lomová talking about her art at comics festivals in Poland, read interviews with her, short biographical pieces and interviews with her talking about her methods and influences. It’s now clear to me that she doesn’t make any decision with regard to her work lightly and, in choosing her style for each, she does so with regard to what the subject demands. As soon as possible after reading Anna Chce Skočit, I was drawn back to Comics Point to buy her next book and it didn’t take long to be convinced that colour was the right choice for the material. Indeed, opening the book now to the first page, a single panel of storks flying over the canopy of a thick forest in Paraguay in 1908, It’s difficult for me to see how I could ever have thought otherwise.

Some pieces of work, though they may be well-loved, vanish from the memory rather quickly, while others stick around, making themselves known at times through the questions they raise, answers they give to recurring problems, characters that remind you of people you have met or, on the contrary, behave like nobody you have ever known but who you are sure could as equally walk the earth beside you and who remain, for the bookish amongst us, more fully realised than many of the common-or-garden people we meet. Lomová, who spent three years creating Savages, is evidently exorcised by the fact that readers may devour her work in an afternoon. She says – and my experience of reading graphic novels in foreign language bears this out – that her relationship to those comics she reads now in foreign languages is often the deeper for her struggles with the language, than it is to those she reads breezily in Czech. Davd B in particular I have now read in English, French and Czech, and his look into macrobiotic communities and other esoteric types remained vividly with me through my experience of working with the pseudo-scientifically and otherwise variously-battily-inclined hippies of the Rudolf Steiner movement. No longer needing a dictionary to read most Czech texts I now come across, my appreciation of Lomová’s work is deepened rather by my desire to explain it to a foreign audience and by searching out her interviews and the like, but I feel strongly that even if this were not the case, she would be reassured to know how long her work sticks in the memory, and that indeed, that for readers such as myself, even those aspects which did not take root on a first reading, become the more meaningful over time.

I can already feel that process taking shape with Anna Chce Skočit just as I can sometimes feel the opposite occur, on walking out of a thrilling film that held me in its spell for a couple of hours and closes up on itself as soon as I walk out into the fresh air. With her first book it is some of the very aspects that I was unsure of on a first reading – it’s attitude towards fate, for example, and, more broadly speaking, towards the mystical – that I feel may stay with me. It is one of the marks of a great artist that listening to them talk about their art pays off and enriches it, and this is certainly my experiences with listening to Lucie Lomová talking about what we can hope will not be her last graphic novels.

Savages, the second and, to date, last of these, is a very different beast than Anna. It is informed by real life events, and thus makes great demands upon the author’s talent for feeling her way into time and place, which she demonstrated so effectively in in the sections of Anna set in a hippy-era San Fransisco and in Prague on the cusp of the swift descent into the rigidity of Normalisation in those weeks following the Warsaw Pact invasion of ‘68.

It is interesting that in choosing to go back in time, Lomová closes the gap between the Czech Republic and the West. The book begins in 1908, and what will be Czechoslovakia and, latterly, the Czech Republic, is part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and is, therefore eminently European. Prague was as educated, sophisticated and integrated into the wider world as it has been at any time since. I mention above, however, that we start our story in Paraguay. We are travelling with the extraordinary Czech botanist, perhaps accidental anthropologist and pioneer photographer, Alberto Vojtěch Frič.

The youngest of a prominent family who might have walked out of the pages of Robert Musil, Frič developed an interest in cacti at a young age, initially as a prank to play on an officer who insisted on frisking him. On later seeing perhaps this self-same long-neglected cactus flower and transform itself from something you wouldn’t look twice at to something so striking, he took to collecting them. While studying for his school-leaving maturita exams, he didn’t take care of his collection as well as he might have and it froze overnight. At the age of nineteen, he made his first trip to South America to replace it.

Frič is much more or less what you would expect, or perhaps rather what you would hope, such a young explorer to be. He is determined to the point of obstinacy, fascinated to the point of obsession, optimistic at times to the point of naivety, and handsome to boot. His first trip took place almost a decade before we meet him and he cut quite a figure. On that first trip he was near killed by a jaguar. He wounded the beast with a gunshot but it went on to maul him before it died as he fought it off with a pitchfork. The indigenous Chamacoco people looked after him for a number of weeks before he returned home and this encounter brought a different focus to later trips.

And so, we first see him asking for the flag to be raised on his boat, the Fortuna, so that the the Chamacoco will come to meet him. That they do, but in small numbers. He has come back at a bad time. They have fallen ill. They are dying.

Frič knows a little about medicine, but this is beyond his abilities. This was intended as a brief visit and he will have to move on but he advises the tribe as well as he is able and prepares for home. At this point a young man visits him. He is ill himself. He introduces himself as Cherwuish Pyoshad Mendoza. His parents and brothers have died. He hopes to travel down river with Frič, to find a powerful white magician he has heard much talk of, to find a potion for himself and to bring it back to treat his tribe.

Frič agrees, on one condition. Cherwuish much agree to listen to him on every occasion and to do what he says.

And so, a road trip of sorts. These are the two characters Lomová lived with for three years and I don’t have any difficulty in believing her when she describes living with the characters to such a degree that her children laugh to see her frowning whenever she draws certain people, and that she should feel a little down herself when they fall on bad times.
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So too is her avowed obsessive streak evident in the detail she bestows upon the places pictured in the novel. She describes researching which houses were standing at such and such a time in the Prague of the early twentieth century, and which trams ran along Myslíková street, and once again, one need only flick through the book to see that this must be so.

What attracted Lomová to the story, she says, is that “it offers that precise combination of tragedy and comedy that is close to my own heart”, and it really is to her credit that she had managed to deliver both without one at any point counteracting the other, and without falling into sentimentality or slapstick – both things many a film maker would have failed to avoid with the same material.

What surprises me now upon looking back over the book is the speed with which we arrive in Prague. Lomová must choose the moments contained in her frames very well indeed given that I remember a series of adventures before the pair arrive in Europe at all.

Cherwuish is lovably mischievous and makes friends upon the ship even while others deny him access to the cabins above. Albert is serious and loyal, he despises the ill treatment of his guest, but never quite learns how to be playful, and soon begins to despair of the restrictions and responsibilities Cherwuish brings in his train. One of the most impressive feats of the book is that Lomová manages to feel and express all of the complexities of male friendship even, it seems to me, as it develops through a number of phases that might be expected in a novel of several hundred pages.
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Having chosen a style of illustration for the whole book that might make any reader look twice to see if it is by the same author as Anna, there are, as in the first book, two sections where Lomová chooses a different form of exposition again. Here, in a lovely, much simplified black and white style, she draws Cherwuish’s version of events as he relates what he has been up to while out of Albert’s sight in the streets of Prague. Here, she expresses his understandably eccentric comprehension of the people around him and his endearing wonder at the variety and peculiarity of the conventions of this new world.

It is this eccentric version of events that of course gets him into trouble, repeatedly.

But he’s not the only one. Lomová, in one interview, explains the plural Savages of the title; or rather, she goes some way to explaining it, since she is reluctant to say too much, wishing the reader to decide for themselves. Frič is headstrong. He has his own opinions about how one should behave, and his own manner of judging the behaviour of others. Almost as soon as he lands in Europe, he finds himself in trouble. He expresses his opinion about the treatment of the indigenous people in South America, and pays little attention to how he will come across. Soon he gains a reputation and a number of enemies. He finds himself encountering opposition wherever he goes. It seems he is, in his own home town, viewed as something of a savage himself.

It is all the more important, then, that he should find work, and he throws himself more and more into his writings and into a series of lectures, which means that, more and more, he finds Cherwuish to be a burden. Cherwuish, meanwhile, wants to go home, but there’s no hope of that without Frič finding the means to send him. Still, encouraged to be a little more independent, to get from under Frič’s feet at any rate, he makes friends he will remember for the rest of his life.

Inevitably, they are both changed by their experiences. Perhaps equally inevitably, they both, in having found a new home, lose a little of their own. By the time I had turned the last page, though I may have spent a mere afternoon, I felt I knew both of these characters through and through, and that their adventures would expand in my mind like those deceptively brief first few pages. Turning from the last characteristically lush full frame drawing of the novel to read the character sketches and see those early glass plate photographs of Cherwuish and Frič himself tucked away at the back, I was touched in a way I haven’t been by any book in years. I will certainly be inspired to read more about these two enchanting individuals and to look up Frič’s writings and suspect there will be a time I cannot imagine not having known this story, and these people.

Divoši won the Muriel award for the best script and best comic of the year. I would urge anybody who can read it in either Czech or French (however poor), to seek it out.

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Comments
  1. […] with mortality (Judith Vanistendael ,When David Lost His Voice), Czech ethnography (Lucie Lomova, Savages) and German family memories (Line Hoven, Love Looks […]

  2. […] them as well as her more recent move into creating comics for an adult readership. Les Sauvages (2011) is based on a true story of a Czech ethnographer, Alberto Vojtěch Frič who befriends a Brazilian […]

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