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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

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by Rima Bertašavičiūtė

 

Miglė Anušauskaitė, Dr. Square: Greimas and his semiotics, Vilnius: Aukso žuvys, 2017.
Jurga Vilė, Lina Itagaki, Siberian haiku, Vilnius: Aukso žuvys, 2017.

Graphic novels, colloquially known as comics, occupy a strange place in Lithuanian literature: they make their way in with difficulty (despite comic books of varied quality from Sin City to Maus to numerous examples of manga—all popular within the Lithuanian market), are created in small numbers, and yet those that are written generate interest. Miglė Anušauskaitė’s and Gerda Jord’s 10 Litas, published in 2014 by Aukso žuvys received The Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Lithuania Patriots’ award, while Gerda Jord’s  Gertrūda: graphic diary of the generation Y , published in 2016 by Obuolys, became the first crowdfunded publication project in publishing history (every single copy of the first edition was sold prior to release)[1]. The two graphic novels were published by Aukso žuvys in 2017, and they made their way onto the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore annual list of the twelve most creative books. This dozen, which are selected by Lithuanian scholars, are usually quite conservative, thus the inclusion of graphic novels on the list demonstrates how the genre is now recognized as a legitimate literary form. However, these graphic novels have nothing else in common besides the publishing house: one is a book for children and teenagers, and the other is a popular science text. In other words, graphic novels in Lithuania are valued both for their written content and their illustrations.

***

Miglė Anušauskaitė (born in 1988) is the author of two comic zines, and from 2010, the author of the graphic web-site “i have no theeth,”[2] a contributor to various cultural periodicals (draws comics); a master of semiotics, and a PhD student in linguistics. In her work, graphic discourse is capacious, allowing representation of various genres in visual form: from reviews to lectures (among her favorite subjects are curios of nature and bacteria) and satire. Such is her latest book Dr. Square: Greimas and his semiotics. It was chosen as the book of the year by the news outlet 15min.

The book itself was conceptualized as part of the national celebration of the centennial of Algirdas Julius Greimas (1917-1992), a French-Lithuanian scientist. It is not just a memorial or a biographical study, but a presentation of semiotics (as Greimas is considered the founder of the European semiotic school)—not in an academic cant, but in a lively, cheerful and perfectly understandable language. That alone is a great achievement: amongst Lithuanian academia, Greimas-esque semiotics are infamous for their incomprehensible vocabulary and convoluted theories. It is exactly the graphic discourse, the attempts to find drawings for abstract concepts, that turn Anušauskaitė’s book into a an interpreter—from abstract theoretical language into objective, visual, common parlance. In its linking of image with words and its generally witty tone, the book is reminiscent of various illustrated guides, or of the Terry Deary books, which have been popular in Lithuania for a decade[3]. However, this text is fundamentally different from other narratives about ideas: within it the author tells her personal journey through her visual alter ego (this alter ego makes an appearance in almost all of Anušauskaitė’s graphic texts on scientific subjects) —an honest, self-ironized student’s attempts to grasp the dogmas of semiotics. In this way, the path of the student’s thought is imitated, with its main aim, speaking semiotically, the quest for knowledge.

Thus, in the book, three stories are interwoven: Greimas’s life story (the text ends with his death); the narrator-student’s journey through Greimas’s texts and thoughts, in which she attempt to become closer to his “life project,” semiotics; and the intellectual twentieth-century landscape that opens up via semiotics—the interwar humanitarian sciences’ ideas that influenced Greimas (Neo-Kantianism, Phenomenology, and so forth). The three stories are inseparable: with the desire to know any field, the individual journey of thought is required to open up that field and to encourage the study of sources and contexts. Thus Anušauskaitė’s presents all these stories, and thus how knowledge is acquired: the story of how learning takes place, how understanding and analysis are arrived at, and how, while studying scientific texts, a person begins to observe them in personal life. This is the way that aesthesis is represented in this text—the momentary experience of unity with the whole world: at first it visits the narrator, while at the end of the book, it also calls on Greimas, who until then only theorized about it in his own texts. By presenting how the principles and repetitions work in life, it becomes obvious how meaning is found—it was exactly this that concerned Greimas the most.

To sum up, Greimas in Anušauskaitė\s book is interesting: very different to what he appears to be when we read his own texts or letters, he is not acerbic or rough; contrary to frequent comic book representations, he does not have any superhero characteristics. Indeed, it seems that he is far removed from his own significance as a scientist—he studies, serves in the army, survives the brutality of war, looks after a dog, is sick, becomes weak. A conventional biography demolishes the myth of genius that is still virulent in academic circles and beautifully adds to Greimas’s scientific project: to define how meaning is created. Looking at it informally, it is quite an ordinary thing—we all understand and use those meanings.

In Lithuanian culture, such a text, within which artistic (literary and visual) and scientific discourses unite in equal balance is a rare joy. It would be wonderful to see this work translated into other languages.

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Siberian Haiku is the first book by Jurga Vilė (illustrator Lina Itagaki is known in the literary world from a few zines and illustrated books). Presently, in the summer of 2018, it is already in its third edition and has received a few awards, including The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania prize for most artistic book of 2017 and the Dr. Aloyzas Petrikas literary prize. It is based on a true story—the author’s father’s biography—and is meant for children and teenagers. Siberian Haiku does not have the conventional structure of a graphic novel (narration boxes); however, it is still considered a graphic novel, not an illustrated book. Within imagery there is a narrative taking place no less important than the written one.

The book is considered deportation/exile literature, representing the mass deportations in the east and north of the Soviet regime in 1941. In Lithuania, this type of literature is mostly of a documentary nature, encompassing memoirs and recollections, many of which were often read at schools as part of the curriculum and in the long term scare young readers away from the topic. It is understandable: documentary or historical literature should be read in a specific manner, and those skills are acquired later in life. The ability to read a graphic novel is also a skill to be acquired, but differently: in graphic novels the narrative is presented in two modes—word and image. Simply, these modes of narrative reinforce each other and create a multi-layered text. This is what happens in Siberian Haiku: both the visual and textual narratives create an emphatic rather than informative text. This allows presentation of the historic tragedy of  deportations “from within” —from the character Algiukas’s, point of view.

The sensitivity of the narrated story stems from authenticity, which is provided by the chosen perspective: the boy is a naïve narrator, he observes and highlights not the scale or the general meaning of the painful event, but the details and minutiae accessible to him. Everything is seen in fragments, whether these are angry, strange faces speaking in unfamiliar tongues or the deaths of familiar people (one is seen frozen under ice, another is shot). All faces and details are enlarged, such as they would appear to a small child. To an adult reading this book, each face represents a whole spectrum of possible traumas. Children themselves should be asked what the images represent: it may be that they represent nothing, or perhaps they are unclear but make an impression. Yet to not be able to understand or to not understand fully is also a traumatic experience.

Deportation in this text is expressed through absence: Daddy, Auntie, explanations (where did they go?), food or simply understanding (why are dead people dumped into an ice hole?). Here the perspective of the child is expressed most beautifully, when insecurity comes from both objectively understood threats and from abandon, shortage, and hunger, literally and figuratively speaking. Algiukas naïvely accentuates how he used to have everything: hobbies (sang in a chorus) and a pet goose Martynas (even when it died, it accompanied the boy as a good spirit).  However, these remain simply details and fragmented in memory.

Lithuania has no alternative story of deportation yet. Thus this graphic novel becomes one of the first attempts to represent the condition of the displaced child rather than to shock and dismay readers with the horrors accompanied by deportation. This way, the book can be placed along such traumatic histories as Maus or Persepolis, but it is not aimed at adults. Feedback suggests that children who have read this book (or who had it read to them) react very sensitively, and they feel sadness and confusion, so it seems that both the textual and the visual narratives of the book succeed in evoking empathy in children.

In more recent years, the subject of Lithuania’s deportations was internationally promoted by Ruta Šepetys’s bestseller Between Shades of Grey (2011). However, the enforced relocation of people is dressed in the costume of adventure, thus the plot is fantastical, fairytale-esque—an ordeal or an obstacle that must be overcome. Siberian Haiku, by presenting a single person’s perspective, both paints the painful experience with the naïveté of a child and defines it as an historical occurrence, making it very accessible and relatable and thus, emotive. It would be very significant to see translations of this story into other languages.

 

1. More on these books please see review: http://vilniusreview.com/articles/185-the-search-for-lithuanian-comics-no-longer-shameful-post-independence-in-gertruda
2. https://ihavenoteeth.com/
3. http://horrible-histories.co.uk/search?collection=bookshop-classic-editions

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