Frédérik Peeters’ Pachyderm

A Lynchian Switzerland

I seem to be working recently on a number of comics that won awards in France (which often, despite purportedly heightened visibility, signifies squat abroad). What can it mean? A syncing up of American and continental tastes when it comes to comics? A realization of the European riches out there and still to be brought over? Expect more comics in the weeks to come.

Last year at Utopiales, the world SFF festival in Jules Verne’s native Nantes, artist Frédérik Peeters took top prize for Best Graphic Novel, a category that included such nominees as Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer, and the Vertigo series The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. The book was Sandcastle [Château de Sable], and marks only the second time Peeters has worked with a writer, Pierre Oscar Lévy. Sandcastle seems to have proved a launching point for Peeters’ career in English, something I salute with great applause. It’s done well enough, at least, for publisher Self-Made Hero to pick up my favorite book of his, Pachyderm, which I currently have the great pleasure of translating. Self-Made Hero’s got an ambitious publishing plan with lots of books in the pipeline. Of interest to WFR readers maybe their SF and Horror line, which includes two anthologies of Lovecraft in comics form, I.N.J. Hulbard’s new adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, and cult classic The Incal, by Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Peeters (left) being interviewed at the comics festival in Angouleme, 2011

Swiss artist-writer Frédérik Peeters has been 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 Joss Whedon’s Firefly to end up more Andrei Tarkovsky’s 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 crime volumes RG, a collaboration with Pierre Dragon, a police intelligence officer, and Koma, his multivolume collaboration with fellow Swiss comics creator Wazem. Koma contains in their inchoate form many themes and moods Peeters would later revisit, much like Nausicaa laid out a lot of later Miyazaki. Imagine The Matrix with a plucky, winning little heroine instead of Neo, set in a steampunk world of massive, child-cleaned chimneys, and serviced deep underground by a tribe of mute apelike Morlocks… Koma’s something like that.

But back to Pachyderm. Let’s see… in the breathless opening to this 80 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 adaptation of The Shining.

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 Pachyderm 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. “I wanted the a strong fragrance to remain hovering in the air once the book was shut,” Peeters remarked in a 2009 interview with Benjamin Roure.

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.

Light, atmosphere, silence, a certain sense of confinement”: these are the reasons Peeters lists for setting his story in his native Switzerland. “I wanted to make it exotic. I thought a lot about Stefan Zweig’s novella ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman.’” An interesting note, in terms of the chamber-piece, claustrophobic, and dreamy production design: his forest from the first few pages was modeled not after any real one, but one from a diorama at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, a place perhaps made most famous by Chris Marker’s La Jetee.

Peeters’ 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 — ”

and dreamy

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.”

Yet Peeters admits RG was the first time he ever worked from a script. Before that, he would improvise directly while drawing (a credible claim, given the pacing of Lupus). After RG, he found he liked working from a script, so he wrote Pachyderm backwards, starting from the end, but this resulted in a script that was too tight and artificial, overdetermined and foreclose. So he gave it breathing room again by improvisationally expanding on transition.

Pachyderme is so tightly told, so invisibly rigorous, one almost imagines it embedded in a longer story, like the Dali sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Peeters, in fact, credits his setting the story in the ‘50s with his love for classic Hollywood movies. 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. “It all started,” says Peeters, “with an image I had in my head of a line of cars stuck behind a dead elephant in the middle of the road.”

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.

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion graduate Edward Gauvin has received fellowships from the NEA, the Fulbright Program, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in F&SF, Podcastle, Postscripts, Conjunctions, Subtropics, and Tin House. He translates comics for Top Shelf, Self-Made Hero, Archaia, and Lerner.

6 replies to “Frédérik Peeters’ Pachyderm

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