by David Prudhomme
It’s reported at the end of Rebetiko that Telerama (French media magazine) considered this to be Prudhomme’s masterpiece.
I just cannot (quite) see it. And I’ve tried, I have really, honestly tried. Yet each time I read it, it frustrated, each time it underwhelmed. There’s something great in here, struggling to get out, yet the flashes of brilliance I kept catching sight of just weren’t enough.
The art is quite beautiful in so many places, moving through the day, dense darkness giving way to sun-drenched morning quite wondrously. There’s a delicious lightness to the figure work, elegance and beauty in his colours. Just staring at some of the pieces here in this review I feel regret I couldn’t enjoy the book more.
But the story failed to engage with me, the style didn’t gel, the characters were too cipher-like, their actions too forced, their speech similarly so, and through the first third it’s a real, real slog to get through. Seriously, each time it took real force of will not to put it down and give myself a rest. One of those books. But where sometimes these books can reward perserverence with something magical, some moment of transfiguration of the reading experience, this one simply got a little faster, a little clearer and a little more enjoyable.
This entire graphic novel, bar a quartet of pages to finish, concerns the lives of a group of “rebetis” in pre-WWII Greece. These musical rogues spend their days and nights failing to keep out of trouble, settling scores, romancing, drinking, smoking, playing their music as best they can against the backdrop of a stifling military dictatorship, forcing immigrant culture underground, including the backstreet musicians playing Rebetiko.
In the modern day, Rebitiko may be considered a form of national Greek folk music, the “Greek blues”. But back then, the musos struggled through the day, watched warily by the authorities, as they try their best to get by in the slums of Athens, rebels and jailbirds, drink, drugs, music, and women filling their lives, the Rebetiko becomming a metaphor for freedoms their country is not yet ready to extend to them.
There are sequences here that truly fly, pace and itch perfect, that run-in with the local constabulary above for example. But each time, it feels as though I’m watching an isolated moment of brilliance, and it never seems to koin the brillaint moments together with any fluidity.
The other big problem I had, a huge one in my reading of it, was simply the sense that the music didn’t come through. In this I can’t help but compare it with Chico And Rita, another music infused book from SelfMadeHero. There, the music filled the book, the obsessional nature, the love of playing, the wonder of listening, it was all there.
Yet here, even in that final summing up, those last four pages, with an ageing player looking back over a life in music, it felt too little. Just as the music sequences mid way through, of the concert late night should have been a joyous explosion of musical tension yet weren’t, that finale should have filled me with the melancholy of an old muso’s reminiscing, yet the fact it did little for me simply emphasised my lack of involvement. And that’s a terrible shame, for the author seems truly spellbound by the music he delivers in these pages.
So in the end, I’m left to puzzle it out, confused and uncertain. Is it just me? Is it really just me who can’t see the brilliance here that others say is a plain as day? Like I say, I tried, I really did. And it’s just not doing anything for me. You may find otherwise. It’s so damn pretty though, that page about being a final case in point, the vibrancy of the reds against the darkness of the old man leaving the party early. It should have done more for me. I hope it does more for you.