I have a rule about what I read in Spanish: no translations. It makes little sense to me to read something translated into Spanish if you can read it in English, especially if it was written in English in the first place. But I have one exception to the rule, too. If the book is not available in English then I will use Spanish as another means to read it. Lamentably, I had to invoke the second rule to read Zeina Abirached’s El juego de las golondrias (The Swallows Game). It is a shame that the English speaking world has to content itself with a few page at Words Without Borders, because The Swallows Game deserves an English edition.
The Swallows Game takes place on one day in 1984 as the war rages all around. The narrator, a girl of 8 at the time, but now an adult, is waiting for her parents to return from a visit to her grandparents. They have made the perilous journey that takes them just a few blocks away, but whose route is filled with snipers, barricades, barbed wire and sandbags. It is a dangerous visit and the girl, her brother and the an old servant who has been with the family for years are waiting nervously for them to return. When they are delayed, the tension mounts as the the family tries to call, which is nearly impossible, and neighbors come by to offer advice and suggestions. During the waiting Abirached adds back story to each of the characters, and explains the difficulties of living in a war zone. The interplay between the waiting and the characters make the story, at once funny and dark.
Abirached’s Beirut is not only a city amidst a war, but the passing of a way of life. The physical manifestations of the world they knew, of course, are the first to go. As the shelling and snipers slowly chip away at the buildings the family moves one by one from each of the rooms in their apartment until they inhabit the one inner room that offers the most protection. Naturally, their possessions also ebb away, until they are left a few keep sakes or precious heirlooms. She also describes the people who belong to a different time, such as Ernest, a dapper man who used to teach french. Always dressed impeccably, he looks like a gentleman from decades earlier. He is a charmer and when she describes him, it is not only the characters like him who have disappeared, but a Beirut that was more cosmopolitan and international. It is also the end of Francaphone Beirut and a man who can recite passages from Cyrano De Bergerac is probably a thing of the past.
Abirached avoids anything graphic or gory about the war. Instead, she focuses on the emptiness of it, accentuating the empty streets and deprivations. At its most stark she will draw empty streets in clear and repetitive detail, avoiding words, and letting the impersonality of peopleless streets say it all. Once in the apartments where the story takes place she describes the privations the residents have to go through, from saving bottles for water and gasoline, to enduring shelling, to at its most extreme having one’s father murdered by a militia at a check point. The brutality and hardship is ever present. And even though The Swallows Game is a child’s story, she never lets the war fade too far into the background.
Artistically, the book has some moments of visual brilliance. The opening sequence of empty streets with barricades, brick walls, and empty oil drums all marked with bullet holes is impressive visual story telling. Abirached likes to use subtle repetition to reinforce a moment or an idea. In addition to the the empty street scenes, she will draw a series of repetitive panels illustrating a conversation. At first it looks like they are the same, but she has made small changes to the eyes or the mouths of the characters. It takes a close read to see the changes, but in those subtle movements you can see the tension, boredom, and youthful energy of the characters come through. Through out the book, she has moments where the visual is as important to the story telling as the text. This isn’t always true in graphic novels and in The Swallows Game it is a welcome addition.
Obviously, the black white drawings are going to draw comparisons to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. While there are certainly similarities, Abirached’s style is different and her art is more interesting and has a stronger visual style. Both are also coming of age stories set against a back drop of political troubles, and they both use humor to tell what could otherwise be dark books. Abirached’s book is not an autobiography since she was born in 1981 and it takes place in 1984, but it does have the feel of so many graphic novels that are autobiographies. While autobiographies can err on the light side, it is a mistake to confuse the reading time (always short with graphic novels) and to mistake a child’s perspective for lack of depth. The power in the story is the contrasting of the children against the war itself. Despite the deprivations going on, the children had a childhood, and it’s the dissipation of the world around them as they grow into the new one that is being formed that makes The Swallows Game interesting. Hopefully, someone will find it interesting enough to translate.