Book review: The Art of Flying's English version suffers in translation
The bookshelf of graphic histories has expanded remarkably in recent years. Jacques Tardi's It Was the War in the Trenches terrifyingly reanimates the first world war; Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis offers insight into growing up in Iran; Joe Sacco applies an investigative journalistic ethos to Palestine and the Balkans; Li Kunwu and Philippe Otié's A Chinese Life chronicles the Cultural Revolution; Nina Bunjevac's recent Fatherland reopens the wounds of Yugoslavia. The medium allows its amateur historians to show and tell simultaneously.
The Art of Flying took six years to land in Britain despite winning numerous awards. It evokes Spain's complicated, cruel 20th century through the experience of the author's father. We meet the decrepit Antonio Senior as he gives his nurses the slip and jumps from the window of his nursing home. The remainder of the book - punctuated by chapter dividers depicting the old man's progress towards the ground - shows us the life that led to this final bid for freedom.
Antonio's early years are spent in the rural backwater of Aragon, where hardscrabble farmers filch their neighbours' land furrow by furrow until each peasant is provoked to fortify his territory with high stone fences, trapping the hapless children inside a maze of barriers. "You see something?" asks one of the lads when his brother has climbed a wall. "Just the wall behind it," is the reply.
History hands co-author Antonio Altarriba plenty of these metaphors on a plate, and he is only too willing to use them. Walls, barriers and allusions to flight abound, as the author details the myriad ways society and politics kept his father penned in and grounded. "We were like birds at work, building our own cage," reflects Antonio when he toils in a refugee camp. Subtle this book is not, but neither were the ideologies that tore Spain apart. You will be moved and angered, and want to know what happens next.
Jonathan Cape has an impressive track record with translated graphic novels, but there are signs of carelessness here. The hand-lettered word balloons of the Spanish original have been replaced with a faux-handwritten typeface that sits awkwardly in the spaces. Two key documents, including a suicide note, are left untranslated.
Kim's monochrome visuals are unflashy and keenly observant. He is no Tardi, but still admirably up to the challenge of rendering both the nation's and the individual's story. This is where good graphic histories excel: showing how ordinary people strive to ignore political upheaval even as they fall victim to it.
When history conspires to thwart a person's every hope and yearning, relief can be found only in small acts of resistance, black humour, and the consolations of art, friendship and sex. The Art of Flying, heavy though its subject matter may be, is borne aloft by all these things.
The Art of Flying by Antonio Altarriba; illustrated by Kim (Jonathan Cape)