by Julian Hanshaw
Julian Hanshaw’s The Art of Pho is his debut graphic novel, reward for his beautiful winning piece for the 2008 Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story – Sand Dunes And Sonic Booms. It draws direct inspiration from Hanshaw’s time in Vietnam, a time he obviously loved, and every bit of that intense emotion finds it’s way onto the pages of The Art Of Pho. It’s a gorgeous, sumptuous book, and Shaun Tan’s back cover quote really rather sums it up rather well:
“Part travelogue, part dream, park cookbook all wrapped in an intriguingly designed rice paper roll: The Art Of Pho is deliciously surreal.”
Except, there’s a problem. If anything, it’s just a little too surreal and what starts beautifully and intriguingly ends up as a slightly unsatisfying experience. The art is gorgeous throughout but the emotion Hanshaw is obviously trying to impart in his work; a love of a place and culture through it’s food tied to a realisation that a relationship with a city is no substitute for relationships with people – that falls somewhat short in the end.
And it’s a terrible shame. Because as a purely visual thing, it’s lovely and clearly shows us the beauty and surreality of Vietnam that Hanshaw wants to convey. His style is cartoon surrealism, with lush earthy colours of yellows, oranges and browns filling the pages, each crammed with design quirks and surreal dreamlike illustrations. Yet throughout it all, Hanshaw keeps the reader with him. Or at least Hanshaw’s art does, sadly the story works very well for most of the book but really loses it’s way at the end.
(The Art Of Pho features several pages of recipes for the dish, all lovingly illustrated by Hanshaw. From The Art Of Pho by Julian Hanshaw, published by Jonathan Cape)
Hanshaw takes us through some of the images and his thought processes over on the Guardian website. And there’s one particular quote that made me realise what one of Hanshaw’s problems with The Art Of Pho may have been:
“I drew up the whole book on great big A2 pads and then brought them home and scanned them in. Here I was experimenting with tone and atmosphere, wondering whether black and white would make it a more serious piece of work.”
It’s that last line “make it a more serious piece of work” that jars. Perhaps Hanshaw concentrated just a little too hard on making this a book he considered worthy of Cape, worthy of those Guardian readers (and reviewers) he knew would get their hands on this? Perhaps the self imposed pressure to give it a weightiness and serious tone towards the end hampered his natural storytelling just that little too much?
(Little Blue’s introduction to Pho and to his own future. From The Art Of Pho by Julian Hanshaw, published by Jonathan Cape)
But back to the beginning…. The Art Of Pho is obviously Hanshaw’s love letter to a moment in his past. And Little Blue, his central character, the strange little creature with a big nose (Hanshaw from the explanatory text in that Guardian piece: “His nose grew as he spent more time in Saigon, purely to suck in the smells around him”) is obviously Hanshaw putting himself into his own story.
Little Blue is dropped off by a mysterious man in an ominous red car in the Vietnam countryside and told to count to 500. He closes his eyes, does as instructed and finds himself alone and lost as the city grows around him. From there he makes his way as best he can and discovers a passion for Pho, the spicy noodle dish that’s the national dish in Vietnam, consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner, served up from countless mobile Pho stands across the city, each taste a slightly different experience.
(That crucial first customer…. Little Blue’s Pho selling career hangs in the balance. From The Art Of Pho by Julian Hanshaw, published by Jonathan Cape)
With his own Pho stand proving increasingly successful Little Blue finds his heart stolen away by a traveller, gets poached by rural Pho loving customers and ventures out into Vietnam, collecting recipes and honing his art as he goes. Along the way he starts to question his identity and rather accidentally discovers more creatures like himself and almost uncovers the link with the man in the red car.
The moments where Little Blue realises his love is never to be reciprocated, and the loss and isolation he feels as a stranger in a strange land are perfectly written by Hanshaw and I can’t help but feel there’s a stunningly emotional story in here somewhere. But when it takes a wrong turn towards the end with the questions over identity and family it left me as a reader slightly disappointed that the promise of the story and the wonderfully surreal and delightful artwork weren’t given the ending they deserved.
One thing is certain, Julian Hanshaw is a talent and one I hope to read more from in time (his next book is due out in 2011, a short story collection, details at his website). That The Art Of Pho, such a prestigious and high profile debut is a small let down shouldn’t put you (or him) off too much. There’s greatness here that will take a little honing, but the greatness will out in the end.