Graphixia

#95 “Lest we Forget”: Affect in Translation in Tardi’s “C’etait la Guerre des Tranchees”

It’s international month at Graphixia, where we’re recognizing comics from outside of North America – highly appropriate, given that three of our number have just completed a whistlestop world tour bringing Canadian content abroad through the graphic narrative conference circuit. As it’s also Remembrance month, I wanted to turn to Jacques Tardi’s C’etait la Guerre des Tranchees, originally published over a twelve year span in A Suivre and Le Trous d’Obus in France, which thankfully has been translated for a North American audience by Fantagraphics Books as It was the War of the Trenches. This haunting, often disturbing exploration of the first World War based on primary source texts, personal family narratives and photorealistic translations of violent images and the scenery of the war is entirely delivered from the French perspective – a take on the war that history students in the West are often quite ignorant of, having been inundated with the dominant accounts propagated by its own national rhetoric. Seeing Tardi’s portrayal of the horrors of trench warfare and his vision of the random senselessness and brutality that accompanies it reminds us to reflect on our (mis)conceptions of history, drawing attention to the fractal realities that are embedded in events that have been experienced internationally.

A meticulous, detailed and factual reading of WWI, War of the Trenches is based on recounting research conducted on primary accounts of the war from soldiers’ perspectives, which are frequently unsettling because of how banal they are – Tardi presents war as a state of confusion, a fact that he displays in his visceral imagery of aimless soldiers, often left alone in a state of permanent but curiously mundane existential crisis. Oscillating between devastated landscapes and close-ups of soldiers faces, these images have largely been transcribed from photographic representations of those who actually fought in the war (compiled by his archivist Jean-Pierre Verney), adding an emotional depth through a layer of affect that highlights the strengths of the medium and which simple textual retellings of the war cannot help but fail to achieve. Tardi emphasizes this by eschewing the traditional, nationalized approach to WWI literature, showcasing the hesitant, unconvinced nature of the troops – vignettes of soldiers shot by their own side for desertion and refusal to follow orders, and those marched knowingly to their deaths because of disaffected, shell-shocked leadership dominate the text. In this sense, War of the Trenches borders on the seditious, intent on defying any attempts to present the war as rational or moral.

Tardi defies traditional narrative structure as well, avoiding protagonists that would allow you a character to root for; in his own words, War of the Trenches is “a non-chronological sequence of situations, lived by men who have been jerked around and dragged through the mud … There are no ‘heroes,’ there is no ‘protagonist’ in this awful collective ‘adventure’ that is war. Nothing but a gigantic, anonymous scream of agony.” (i). There is little dialogue to the story, as Tardi is most often outside looking in on these events, narrating while visually depicting the atrocities that occurred in the trenches. He also brings to light the nationalist fervor in Paris that accompanied the onset of war, with an elderly abstainer, refusing to be caught up in the revelry, beaten to death by a mob of citizens for presumably being a spy or a traitor. Similar scenes of violence abound in the text, most notably when a squad of Germans uses Belgian women and children as shields, and whom the French soldiers shoot down anyways.

The graphic novel takes on a highly personal tone at the midpoint of the text as the reader is offered the stories told by Tardi’s grandfather, himself a participant in the war. Shifting to a first person account and pulling no punches, Tardi introduces this section by describing his grandfather’s experience of sleeping in a trench in what he thought was mud, his hands actually having been buried in the entrails of a fallen soldier. Meant to shock and disgust, graphic narrative here provides a means of allowing the reader an entrypoint into the war that is otherwise attainable only through film – implicit in Tardi’s work is how much more effective accounts of genocide are if accomplished through a medium that marries primary, textual accounts with similarly primary visual representations. Here, there is no glamour or nationalism in his approach, and it’s appropriate that Tardi recounts underused stories of confusion and chaos through the similarly underused graphic narrative for the relating of historical documents; both form and content assert themselves with an insistence that is seemingly self-conscious throughout the novel. Even though this is a text based on translation of these events to the page, it feels far closer to reality than the propagandized historical materials offered by the typical academic publishing industry and so many ministries and agencies that have long become entrenched in our collective national psyche – more real, even, than purely textual autobiographical accounts.

The visual, in historical documents, brings the reader closer to what Raymond Williams notes as the “structure of feeling,” being the ultimately unattainable cultural experience of a particular moment in history, with all of the emotional context that attends it. It is in the blank stares and confused expressions of the real French soldiers and citizens whom Tardi portrays that we see a reflection of what this unimaginable loss of human life can do to the spirit, as we’re shown limbless bodies and rotten corpses as casually as the soldiers themselves were exposed to in the trenches. There is a level of authenticity to the text that is simultaneously illuminating and, frankly, alarming. Tardi writes that “the only thing that interests me is man and his suffering, and it fills me with rage” (i) – this rage is perfectly and terrifyingly transcribed in It was the War of the Trenches, adding depth and urgency to our worn out aphorism “Lest we Forget.”

 

Works Cited

Tardi, Jacques. It was the War of the Trenches. Trans. Kim Thompson. Seattle:   Fantagraphics Books, 2011.

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