December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

The kindness of strangers

By Luke Davies

Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’

A man packs his meagre belongings in a city suffocating with fear and foreboding, like Europe in the 1930s. Sinister shadows flicker through the streets. In a tearful departure at a railway station, the man leaves his wife and daughter. He takes a long journey by ship. He arrives at last in a place that seems like Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century, but is actually like no New York ever imagined. The gloriously odd statues that guard the harbour, to say nothing of the birds and animals that inhabit it, are enough to inform us that this is not a familiar world.

Gradually, the man finds his way in this bewildering land. After being ‘processed' at the port, he takes a kind of balloon-taxi to a distant city utterly unlike that which he left behind. He tries to communicate with strangers. He tries to read maps. He tries to work out how to share his room with the strange creature (a "walking tadpole", as Shaun Tan has described it) that seems already very much at home.

The man unpacks his suitcase and hangs on the wall a photo of his loved ones, and we sense that his single goal is to be reunited with his family. Without a single word of text, the book has created a world and fleshed out, with remarkable tenderness, its central protagonist.

Time passes. Our man learns how to navigate the public-transport system, which consists largely of huge airships. He struggles from menial job to menial job. Three of the people he meets in his travels and at work tell their own stories - at least, we learn their stories through their eyes, in a clever flashback device. Each of them has suffered appallingly. In this New World, apparently, everyone is a refugee. It's just a matter of when you arrived.

Perth author Shaun Tan's The Red Tree achieved the remarkable feat of being a work equally as potent for adults as for children, despite containing only 122 words to accompany its 24 images. But, beautiful though The Red Tree is, The Arrival (Lothian, 112 pages; $39.95) shows Tan's creative powers soaring. There's a stamina and depth of play that mark it out as a complex, multi-layered novel - albeit one that has completely dispensed with words. The publisher is marketing it as a "silent graphic novel". That'll scare some highbrow punters off, for sure, but it will be their loss. For those who have not yet ventured into the fertile fields of the graphic novel, this is a marvellous starting point. Certainly The Arrival should be read more like a novel than a picture book. It's a story to savour, to immerse oneself in: a rapid scan will do it no justice. Read The Arrival in less then an hour - or read it only once - at your own peril. You need to sink into it as one sinks, fatigued of limb, into a warm bath.

There's much beauty in the finest detail of this work, but it's the emotional generosity of The Arrival that sets it apart. Tan is an artist and storyteller for whom the overused expression sui generis is no hollow cliché. There's a parallel with the Israeli short-story-writer Etgar Keret, whose guiding energy also seems to be an extraordinary compassion for the other, and whose stories, coincidentally, are regularly adapted into graphic novels.

As a storyteller Tan has exquisite control of both the long and the short view; his interweaving of small-scale story and large-scale metaphor is masterful. Tan inhabits what Cormac McCarthy called, referring to dreams, the "great democracy of the possible": in his works, this and other, here and elsewhere, are compatible and seamless. We are not always certain whether we're in the past or the future or some otherworld of pure fable, as in the novels of Italo Calvino, yet nothing seems out of place.

Tan originally intended that text would accompany the drawings. The decision to eliminate words is a brave one, and the result is a breathtaking narrative economy. In one section of the book, a man who works with the protagonist on an assembly line in a giant factory (think Terry Gilliam meets Fritz Lang) relates his own story of chaos, survival and arrival. Smiling soldiers march through a sunny town. Women throw flowers from their windows. One page of frames shows just a pair of soldier's legs moving through increasingly difficult terrain. They become a blur of movement.

We turn to a splash-page, the enormity contrasting with the preceding small-frame detail. Soldiers charge on a battlefield under ominous clouds. Skeletons in tattered uniforms litter a bomb-ravaged landscape that resembles the trenches of World War I. And then we're back to a page of small-scale frames: soldiers' legs again. Only this time, it's just one leg, and a bandaged stump, and crutches: a wounded soldier struggling mightily to get home. And home, that sunny town from a few pages before, is a bombed-out ruin.

The flashback sequence is astonishing not just for its brevity and dark poetry, but for where it leads us, when the factory men clock off and the older refugee leads the newcomer, with grace and warmth, to join his motley collection of after-work friends and the bizarre boules-like game they play.

Shaun Tan has created a masterpiece in The Arrival. Essentially a chronicle of an immigrant's journey, it is also about the kindness of strangers in foreign places, and about home and family. It is a magnificent and timely story of hope and persistence: deeply moving, disturbing and, at the same time, infused with quiet joy and a grand, buoyant openness to experience.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: December 2006 - January 2007
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