söndag 6 maj 2012

Guy Delisle: Shenzhen. A travelogue from China

Comics artist and animator Guy Delisle is sent to China to oversee the animation work done for a French studio, and to make sure it meets minimal standards. He is supposed to stay 3 months. The book is presented as a travelogue, but it really isn't IMO; Delisle isn't really traveling, he goes to a place to do a job, and leaves after he's done the job. What it is is a sometimes amusing, sometimes sad, log of his experiences in a world he doesn't quite understand and struggles mightily to not just understand but also to influence, to leave some sort of mark on. In the end, he doesn't seem to fully succeed at either.

The book sort of reads as a mix of Stranger in a Strange Land and Lost in Translation. Delisle arrives in China knowing neither the language nor the culture, but knowing animation. Unfortunately, he has to struggle mightily to impart his knowledge of the craft on the animators, via a translator, and often has to settle for getting something "acceptable" out the doors of the studio. After his work is done, he goes "home" to his hotel room, reads and writes, starts going to a gym, enjoys Chinese food and tries but doesn't really succeed to get to know some Chinese and their culture. A visit to Hong Kong is a heavenly reprieve from the unintelligible Shenzhen, but then it's back to boredom and frustration – which he endures, alleviating it by observing and commenting on it, until his three months are up and he can go back to France.

(We also get some interesting observations on the nature of animation – not quite part of the overall narrative, but short asides livening it up a bit.)

I don't think this story would have quite worked as a written book, but as a comics story, it works quite well. Aided by pictures, Delisle's observations and anecdotes are readily accessible, and I don't have time get bored as I suspect I would have been if I'd been reading page after page of prose about them. In comics format, you can tell so much in a couple of pages with words and pictures that would have taken so much longer to convey with just words; this effective storytelling makes comics is a pretty much perfect format for the story Delisle tells us.

I can find it a bit sad – or rather, frustrating – that the story is basically about how he never quite gets to fit in where he is during his stay, or to fit the the place he's at into a sort of broader cultural understanding, but then, that is the story he's telling, so it's probably an appropriate response to Shenzhen.


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