Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Who was I, in this place?
"Everything and nothing."
From a spread of notes taken by Tan from interviews and biographies in which migrants spoke about their lives, embellished with the sketches they inspired.
"Often, the most difficult experiences were described by migrants in a very concise, understated way, partly because of poor English skills, but also due to the more general inadequacy of language to convey complex feelings and impressions."
It's one of the many reasons why the final graphic novel is silent, using instead the universal language of pictures whose tones are transformed according to the emotional highs and lows of its protagonists.
Shaun Tan's THE ARRIVAL has to be one of the most beloved books at Page 45, bought then bought again as its readers are inspired, galvanised into spreading its empathy towards those most in need of understanding and help, but who are often the most ostracised and even vilified by the right-wing press, opportunist politicians, and the thoughtless, with hate in their hearts.
This is the story of the graphic novel's evolution then construction, full of preliminary art and process pieces, photographs of friends posing for pictures etc which Shaun reproduces with extensive explanations or brief annotations, like the Registry Room or 'Great Hall' at Ellis Island in America circa 1907-1912, through which each new arrival had to pass in order to enter the country.
"Here, I tried to amplify the subtle 'poetry' of the original image: the huddled darkness of massed people, the bench-lines receding towards a flag in the centre (a strange symbol of authority and freedom) and the protective embrace of the cathedral-like vaulting. The over-exposure of the upper-storey window suggests a land of luminous opportunity just beyond the gates."
In his final piece Shaun replaces the blinding light with vast, distant towers from which those who have been accepted - after intrusive inspections by military surgeons - are dispersed in balloons. In place of the flag hangs a gigantic sign in a fictional language indecipherable both to the book's readers and those queuing for admission. So it is that throughout we walk these miles in their shoes. Later on Tan will demonstrate the construction of this script from a rearrangement of Roman letters and numbers using scissors and transparent tape.
Of his choice to use a shadowy serpent coiling round bleak, dilapidated housing in the asylum-seeker's homeland, Shaun suggests it was "an ideal metaphor for many unspoken fears: political oppression, religious persecution and even ecological collapse. At the same time, they escape such specific interpretation, and I think that is the most important thing in illustration: that an image feels truthful beyond any explanation."
For someone who's fashioned a career largely from silent, pictorial narratives, Shaun Tan is ever so eloquent, as anyone who's read his TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, BIRD KING art book and THE SINGING BONES, inspired by the Brothers Grimm. He writes about his own complex international heritage, and this made me sit up and think because, when one casts one's mind over the creator's catalogue, it rings perfectly true:
"Consciously or otherwise, I've always been attracted to stories about characters who find themselves lost, displaced, in an unfamiliar world, or experiencing some other troubled sense of belonging."
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