Do you need words to tell a story?
Visual artists have proven for centuries how images alone can convey as much feeling and meaning as the written word, but in the world of books, it’s usually a given that language will be used in some capacity.
Enter Shaun Tan and his stunning picture book The Arrival.
It’s a title that’s been on my list for a while now (and one which the Ink-stained Toe Poker mentioned on last week’s post). I finally bought a copy on the weekend, and then sat down for a wonderfully unique and moving narrative experience.
For those who don’t know, Shaun Tan is an acclaimed Australian illustrator of picture books for older readers. Although his work often finds itself in the children’s section, it certainly isn’t created for youngsters. As the artist himself says, his stories “deal with relatively complex visual styles and themes, including colonial imperialism, social apathy, the nature of memory and depression”.
Until recently, his works were more along the lines of graphic novels, but Tan took the narrative form a step further with The Arrival, by producing a story without a single written word in a comprehensible language. (And then confounding the literary establishment by winning the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award.)
The story is about a man who leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages.
With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.
The Arrival is a tribute to anyone (like Tan’s own family) who has left their home behind in search of a better life in a foreign land. While the traveller in this story ventures to a fantastical world of weird creatures, food and social customs, his experience is no doubt no less startling that those of immigrants in our “real” world.
Tan’s narrative magic is woven two-fold: through his imaginative, evocative and detailed drawings, and the story (and stories within stories) of a man finding his place in a new world.
And it’s the nature of this man's struggle - to understand his environment without sharing the language of its inhabitants - which makes the absence of words all the more powerful and appropriate.
There are moments of humor, fear and pathos, as the immigrant makes a new life in the hope of bringing his family to join him. It’s a gentle story, full of meaning and emotion, and one which moved me to tears.
Perhaps even more so than a book with words, this is one story I will revisit again and again, with the promise of new detail to be discovered in the images with each viewing, along with the emotional pay-off of an uplifting story.
The Arrival is a perfect addition to any bookcase. It's a collection of art and a beautiful story. I can’t recommend it enough.
(As a side note, the book as a physical object plays a part in the experience as well. The cover is wonderfully tactile, and I found myself repeatedly running my fingers over it, and the pages inside.)
You can find out more about Shaun Tan and his work at http://www.shauntan.net/.
I’m now keeping an eye out for his next work, Tales from Outer Suburbia.