Listening to History

by Hasan Altaf

LISTENER_front_cover-208x312If I were to describe David Lester’s The Listener (Arbeiter Ring, 2011) as “a graphic novel about the Holocaust,” the immediate correlation drawn would be with Maus, by Art Spiegelman, an urtext of both the genre and the subject. The comparison would be unfair, and a disservice to Lester’s work; the description is correct only in the most general sense. Th e shadow of Maus is irrelevant – artistically, thematically and structurally, The Listener is completely different, and stronger for it.

The Listener avoids both the historical-memoir structure found in works like Maus (or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis) and the more familiar parts of the Nazi-era narrative. Instead, it tells the story of a Canadian sculptor named Louise, who leaves for Europe after a Cambodian genocide survivor, inspired by her work, falls to his death in an attempt to hang a political banner. (She picks up her hate mail with startling regularity from various places on the continent.) On her wanderings, she encounters an old German couple, journalists and members of the German National People’s Party (DNVP) in the 1930s, whose story of mishandled elections in a small German state and a crucial vote that enabled the Nazi rise to power fill in the latter half of the book.

This strategy provides both opportunities and pitfalls. It is an unconventional and refreshing take on a difficult topic, and the connection between the two stories is real and important: They share a language, a focus on the relationship of politics to art and of both to truth, and there is throughout the book a yearning for something like absolution. When we see Rudolph and Marie find theirs – through telling their story to Louise and, through her, to us – it is as beautiful a moment as Lester shows it and Louise imagines it.

The difficulties, though, are real too. Part of it is the way the two stories are filtered through one another; Louise’s comes first and takes primacy, but later the two are given almost equal space, making it difficult to prioritize between them. It is of course a strength that Rudolph and Marie’s story has its own drama, but eventually we stop looking for its meaning to Louise and read it for its own sake. The finale of her story, at the end, lacks the resonance of the other.

This might also be because Louise’s journey is simply not as compelling. It doesn’t lack for drama (it begins, after all, in high drama, with a man falling to his death), but it degenerates into a particular kind of aimless wandering that maybe could survive in a movie, but not in a graphic novel. Even the assorted characters Louise encounters in Europe speak mostly in high-sounding sentiments about the nature of art and truth, full of intellectual seriousness and not much else. They don’t seem like the kind of traveling companions one would remember fondly, and especially in comparison to the real, much more human dramas of Rudolph and Marie’s story, Louise’s seems a bit tedious.

I don’t know how other people read their graphic novels, but I at least have to read them twice – once for the story and once for the art. The drawings in The Listener are lovely – they have the appearance at times of black-and-white watercolors, at other times of charcoal drawings, and Lester is adept at using different kinds of visual language. Artistically, The Listener didn’t remind me of other graphic novels, which generally adopt a particular visual style (Maus, Persepolis, Asterios Polyp) and maintain it throughout. The variety is a strength here. Lester has a particular skill in depicting the inner lives of his characters, as when Louise visits the Malthausen concentration camp: In one panel, she is shown standing alone; the subsequent pages fill the same frame with a population of ghosts. It’s a powerful image, and an advantage the graphic novel has over a traditional novel or a movie.

The art and the story, however, share a common tone, and it’s generally a bleak one. Perhaps that is a given, for this subject matter, but several works that have dealt with similar issues find a way to introduce a form of lightness. In Maus, it’s the displacement of the story onto animals, and the more familiar struggles of an adult child to understand his parent; in Persepolis, it’s the cartoon-like drawings. The lightness doesn’t detract from the seriousness, the drama, or the horror of the stories – by contrast, it makes them starker. The absence of any kind of humor in The Listener makes it too serious, almost sententious, and for that reason hard to deal with the drawings and the story at once – it was just too much of the same.

It would perhaps be easiest to describe The Listener as having only a historical or a political value, in the vein of “read x if you want to understand y,” but it is too complicated and varied a work for such a simplistic reading. It does provide a fascinating look into a little-known history, but like almost all successful works of that nature, it does so in a human and moving way. The “present” of the story lacks much of that, seeming to exist largely as a vehicle for the past. If we could find a way to connect to Louise as well, to journey with her rather than simply alongside her, The Listener would be an even stronger work than it already is.