Pachyderme, by Frédérik Peeters (Gallimard, 2009)
Let’s see… in the breathless opening to this 90 page graphic novel we get a traffic jam due to a wounded elephant; a blind pigkeeper; a gray hydrocephalic baby—vaguely alien-looking—in the woods; a cavalier and alcoholic skirt-chasing surgeon; and a beanpole of a Swiss secret policeman, complete with trenchcoat, stovepipe hat, and prosthetic proboscis, who like Get Smart’s Agent 13 turns up in the unlikeliest of places. A woman—our heroine Carice—walks though it all—from her car through the woods, as if in a trance, to a hospital to visit her diplomat husband, indisposed from an auto accident. Her goodbye note, which she intends to deliver in person, is in her purse. The hospital is vast, remote, and forbidding, filled with suitable loonies. Among those Carice meets in the lobby are a paraplegic who offers to help hide her if she’s a Jew, and an orderly who insists she’s come for the annual show patients put on. The secret policeman insists she see the Don Juan of a doctor before her husband, because the former has a file that should be in the latter’s hands: a file valuable to the Soviets, detailing activities of the Red Cross. The book's first third ends with Carice waking an apparently dead body in the morgue with her whistling. Chopin? the body asks. Carice nods. We learn of her too-early marriage, her dashed dreams as a concert pianist, and in the course of conversation realize that the aged cadaver she’s talking to is her future self.
This is a dream, Carice says. I must be dreaming.
Or I am! the dead body merrily replies. Or they are, all around us! Who knows?
Or maybe, Carice reflects, I’m not here right now…
It’s Switzerland, 1951. Despite the cavalcade of unlikely characters, the willfully eccentric situations, the tone is somber, the art insistently realistic. Nor is credibility stretched; the increasing strangeness is eerily convincing. We’re in something like a David Lynch version of The Shining.
Pachyderme is the latest from the Swiss creator Frédérik Peeters, dubbed “a young master” in the world of Francophone comics by no less than The Comics Reporter’s resident Euro-expert, Bart Beaty. He first came to notice in 2001 with the raw, headlong memoir Pilules bleues (Atrabile), about living with an HIV positive lover (translated by Anjali Singh for Houghton Mifflin as Blue Pills in 2008). After five Best Book nominations at the Angoulême Festival, Peeters finally took home the prize for the final volume of his black-and-white science-fiction tetralogy Lupus (also from Atrabile). This meandering saga, low on tech and long on character, is a record of Peeters’ increasing sophistication as both writer and visual storyteller, and starts out sort of Firefly to end up more Solaris. In the first book, rich girl runaway Sanaa jumps in with two unlikely buddies, Ted and Lupus, sportfishing on a distant planet, accidentally causing Ted’s death at the hands of bounty hunters her father has sent after her. The series becomes a headlong space chase; the odd characters Lupus and Sanaa meet along the way include a disgruntled revolutionary clearly modeled on a soixante-huitard. Once they outdistance their captors on an abandoned space station, the story rhythms relax into road trip and even domestic drama, as Sanaa announces her pregnancy. Of note as well are Peeters' two recent crime volumes RG, a collaboration with Pierre Dragon, a police intelligence officer.
Lupus featured frequent dream interludes, and alarming close-ups so macro as to be abstract, but these were clearly set off from the linear story in the here and now. The achievement of Pachyderme is a stunning poetic compression of dream and reality, and a surehanded marriage of image and narrative. For most of the book the reader is no more certain of what’s real and what isn’t—even what’s past and what’s present—than the heroine Carice, and yet like her we move smoothly forward, ever deeper into mystery, confident and troubled, trusting and compelled. The transitions are abrupt but enticing. The action moves too quickly for us to dwell on our befuddlement. Patterned wallpaper sprouts pink blossoms. A woman dancing is arrested by the eye of a stuffed flamingo. The whirlwind story blends several genres: haunted house, espionage, romance.
How does Peeters manage to make a seamless whole of it? For one, he conscripts the spectrum, displaying a canny mastery of color matched to décor. With such deft schemes are entire moods established. The tan fields, the russet woods, the blue hospital walls, the green morgue, Clarice’s purple dress and lavender stole… Peeters deploys an orchestral command of mood. When at last Carice enters the doctor’s lair, the sumptuous red drapery introduces a menacing note, heretofore unheard, to the book’s lush chromatic symphony. Only later do we notice the deft separation of lush, saturate fantasy from paler reality.
His dialogue also perfectly sustains the tone, at once worldly
“I’ve had to fend off more sophisticated techniques of seduction, Doctor. I won’t go so far as to say you disappoint me, but—”
“There must be several types of brain, don’t you think? With certain particular predispositions. For instance, I always know when a woman’s lying, but on the other hand, unlike most people, I have no sense of direction.”
Pachyderme is so tightly told, so invisibly rigorous, one almost imagines it embedded in a longer story, like the Dali sequence in Spellbound. (Only one panel made me groan: nosebleeds are so cliché.) Though the book features two pachyderms—including a golden pendant—one reaches the end with the enigma of its title tantalizingly intact. That so convoluted a narrative should lead us, down its byways and secret passages, to a moment of triumph, reassurance, and even grace, beside a hospital bed! The final page invites us to stand and applaud. This reader did. He leapt from his easy chair and clapped out loud.
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