‘Still Life’: Anatomy of a Disappearance
Critics like to stress that good novels understand the passage of time and therefore know how to manipulate the reader’s perception of it. Let me offer you a corollary: good graphic novels understand space and all things spatial. At Art Spiegelman Prisoner on the infernal planet, a mini-comic in his graphic memories Maus, the increasingly claustrophobic visuals of a prison cell block are used to convey the protagonist’s mental health issues. Richard McGuire’s here (2014), one of the strangest and most daring graphic novels of the 21st century, follows the same physical space through the centuries: a forest, a barren wasteland, various types of human settlements. A forest fire in medieval times is placed next to a coughing 21st century inhabitant, creating a sense of cause and effect that is both absurd and not. Space matters in the comic book world due to bold strategies like these, harnessing the unique power of the medium.
Anoushka Khan’s first graphic novel, Still life, includes physical spaces. Khan understands how good storytellers tie certain emotions or ways of thinking to specific places, and the text is marked by crisp atmospheres and a creeping sense of melancholy. There’s not much plot – Pinky, the protagonist, goes up in search of her missing husband, Pasha, whom she has known since childhood – but that’s more the point. Still lifeThe great subject of is agony and the need for silent contemplation and Khan’s black and white artwork sets this tone calmly and effectively.
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Still life: by Anoushka Khan, Penguin Random House India, 112 pages, ??599.
Brooding often happens outdoors, and not just because Pinky searches for Pasha in an old cabin on top of a hill owned by her family. In pre-modern texts dating back to Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, existential themes were frequently encoded in “nature scenes”. Soldiers would see the faces of their lovers in constellations, nature deities would step in on behalf of pious mothers, kings and queens would receive “signs” guiding them to their next course of action.
“Can you see the shapes in the hills?”
There, the hooked nose and the big chin.
The big big head. Can you see the five toes and the onion?
Where? It’s not an onion, Pinky.
It looks like my grandmother’s foot.
Consider this conversation between Pinky and Pasha, during a flashback sequence at the beginning of the book. Part of the newly anthropomorphized hill is said to resemble the onion on Pinky’s grandmother’s foot. Shortly after, Pacha promises Pinky that he “will take her there one day”. Both statements echo Pinky’s current situation: going up and down hills, with nothing to show for her efforts. Since we know how their story is going to play out, this seemingly innocuous exchange works like a foreshadowing.
Animals are also a crucial part of the existential puzzle here. In their mutilation, deprivation and hunger, Pinky tries to make sense of her past and her present. A lizard with a missing toe on a wall leads to a stunning mixed media sequence (watercolors, acrylics and crayons do the heavy lifting in this book, collages appear every now and then) where she imagines a hundred thousand replicas of the lizard covering the wall entirely. Pasha’s mother feeds Pinky and tells her the story of a jackal who struggles to feed her hungry children.
What exactly is going on here? The academic discipline “animality studies” offers some answers. From Aristotle (his treatise From Anima or on the soul) to Jacques Derrida (the essay So the animal that I am) to contemporary luminaries like Mel Y. Chen (their 2012 book Animacies: biopolitics, racial matters and queer affect) – this area of study suggests an important epistemological role for animals in the human psyche. He also studies the duality offered by all animals, namely that they are similar to humans in certain contexts while being among the first “non-me” beings encountered by the developing human mind.
This duality is beautifully highlighted by the contrasting attitudes of Pinky’s parents. Her mother is a biologist who tries to reinforce the idea that animals are like us (“you see, just flesh and bones,” she comforts Pinky when the latter sees a carcass in her childhood). His father, on the other hand, represents the “non-me” aspect, the impenetrability of nature. An archaeologist, he tells him that several skeletons, both humans and animals, have been found in the ruins of the Indus Valley. The cause of their death could not be determined, reflecting the brutality and cruelty of Pasha’s disappearance.
These two views are separated by a wordless page with a chessboard-shaped grid (Pasha and Pinky played chess when they were children) with various animal fossils (or prints thereof) embedded in individual squares. Still Life rewards careful reading, which I would say is especially important for graphic novels.
Khan’s art alone would have been worth the price of this book, to be honest. The grid of fossils and the mosaic of mutilated lizards are just a few of the awe-inspiring works of art that bring his tale to life. The watercolors that make up most of his landscapes are equally good. More importantly, art conveys the emotional texture of its history quite effectively; the mystery, the pathos and the fabulism. At no point does it seem like a page can use more or less words than it does, a delicate balance to strike, especially in a first job.
Comics and graphic novels, especially of the superhero genre, are often associated with “noise” on the page; the clamor of action, the incessant hum of activity. But there is, and always has been, a parallel tradition of sequential art concerned with silence. From pre-WWII masters like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel to today’s creators like Shaun Tan, comic book artists have created unforgettable, wordless graphic novels. Closer to home, the “Halahala” books by George Mathen alias Appupen (To the moon, Aspyrus et al) are excellent examples of this subgenus. Still life, although not entirely silent of course, channels some of the meditative silence of these works. It is an accomplished and ambitious start that deserves to be read and reread.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.