Kaspar – retelling a fascinating tale
by Diane Obomsawin
Drawn & Quarterly
“I came out of the darkness Holding one thing A small white wooden horse I’d been holding inside
And when I’m dead If you could tell them this That what was wood became alive What was wood became alive”
(Suzanne Vega, “Wooden Horse/Caspar Hauser’s Song)
Another in Drawn & Quarterly’s Petit Livres series, but unlike the previously reviewed Nicolas (see here), Kaspar had very little in it that connected with me on any real emotional level and it just felt a little too much like an opportunity missed, a case of nearly but not quite.
It’s a tale of Kaspar Hauser, a mystery from his discovery to his death just five years later. You may have heard the story before; maybe from the 1974 Werner Herzog movie, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, but if you haven’t it’s a fascinating tale: Kaspar Hauser appears on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, a blank slate of a man, without social skills or any history. Allegedly he was brought up in near complete isolation, raised in a cellar and only taught the very basics of existence. His revelation in polite society brought about intense debates on the nature of civilisation, natural man and original sin and his life was the subject of many theories until his equally mysterious death five years later from knife wounds. Hauser’s tale has been retold many times, amid much speculation and controversy over the truth behind the mystery; was Hauser telling the truth, was it all some elaborate hoax and if so, to what end?
(Kaspar Hauser’s cellar world. From Kaspar by Diane Obomsawin.)
It’s an intriguing and bizarre tale, but this adaptation does little to build upon it and there are times during the story when it lapses into mere reportage, rather like reading the Wikipedia entry set to pictures. Fact after fact is trotted out with a dry, monotone style as Obomsawin presents the tale as a first person account, utilising Hauser’s own writings and contemporary accounts of the mystery to tell the story. All of the controversy is ignored and Obomsawin decides to tell the tale purely from Hauser’s perspective, disregarding the hypothesy that the entire thing may just be a tissue of lies.
I can see what the author’s trying to do, utilising the idea of Hauser as a childlike blank slate to tell his own tale in blank, emotionless prose, without embellishment, without the deeper meaning that Hauser himself is incapable of understanding, but in doing so she also makes the tale devoid of involvement with this reader and in the end it becomes almost a report on someone’s interesting life.
There are certainly moments where she shows that she’s capable of engaging with the reader, especially in the scenes where she shows us Hauser’s life in the cellar and his initial lessons in surviving the outside world and later when she shows us his childlike responses of joy to the simplest of things. But overall, these moments are just that, disconnected from each other.
(Kaspar’s captor teaches him rudimentary social skills, in preparation for his release into the wilds of Nuremberg.)
Whilst the story didn’t really connect with me, I found much to enjoy in the art, presented in simplistic graytone and a perfect visualisation of the story Obomsawin is attempting to tell, with her just slightly more than stick figures and almost childlike style perfectly matching the unformed psyche of the subject she’s writing about. It’s delicately done and if it were matched by the story I’d have really loved this book.
It’s a book that nearly manages to be something profound, nearly manages to be a gentle viewpoint of humanity and it’s failings. Nearly, but not quite.