Director’s Commentary – monkey business with Wilfrid Lupano
In our Director’s Commentary series of guest posts over the last few years I’m delighted to note that we’ve had a pretty diverse range of creators, well-known writers and artists, newly emerging talent to watch out for, a team of sisters, we’ve even had an actual director, but I think this is another first for the Commentary, le première fois, so to speak, we’ve welcomed a French guest. Today we welcome Wilfrid Lupano, creator along with artist Jérémie Moreau of Le Singe de l’Hartlepool (which won a major historical award in France recently, the Rendez vous de l’histoire), and which our friends at the UK’s Knockabout Comics have translated and are about to publish as The Hartlepool Monkey. I was treated to an advance read of the book and thought it a fascinating mixture of history and myth, absurd comedy and dreadful tragedy, while its examination of bigotry and unreasoning hatred of those perceived as ‘different’ has as much relevance to our modern world as it does to the society of the Napoleonic era depicted in the tale (see here for my review), but rather than me talking about it further why not hand of to Wil and let him share some his thoughts on the book and why he felt compelled to tell this particular historical oddity:
I discovered the story of the Hartlepool monkey thanks to an English friend, during a trip in in England. We were having a drink in a bar, I think it was in Manchester, when a guy who had too many beers interrupted us quite aggressively because he heard my French accent. ” Oh you’re french, right ?” and he started telling me all the good he thought about us, the frogs. His overview lead us back to the wars of the Middle Ages; he mentioned how arrogant we were etc… the good old ” you, the French” classics. No big deal, though, it was rather funny. My friend took me out of this very interesting “debate” by mentioning I was not from France, but from Switzerland. It was not true, of course, but it worked. The man apologized, and said that everything was ok, then, as long as I was not French. We had such a good laugh with my mate, that we started to chat about this old mysterious historical hatred between France and England.
Because of course, in France, you can hear exactly the same thing about the English in every pub ! Especially from the elders, and especially during the Six Nations rugby tournament… (for those outside of Europe that’s an annual rugby international tournament involving France, England, Italy, Wales, Ireland and Scotland – Joe) That’s when he told me first about the monkey legend. He gave me a short version of the story, and I immediately loved it. It was so funny and so sad at the same time.
(An illustration of the «entente cordiale». Here again, you can see how a new ennemy helps old former enemies to become friends again...)
So as soon as I was back in France, I started to do some research into the legend, and I was surprised to find almost nothing about it in French. The story was totally unknown on our side of the sea, though we were concerned in the first degree ! I decided I would try to fix that. I must add that, at that time, in France, we were going through a very filthy “public debate” about national identity. It had been initiated by the freshly elected Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, and it was like a public tribune for all the xenophobic movements in France, trying to find out what was a French guy, exactly. The debate was so much in the gutter, asking questions like ” are you really French if you don’t eat saucisson and drink wine ?”, and similar kinds of highly philosophical topics, that I wanted to write a satire of the extreme nationalist behaviours. But from the point of view of the ordinary people. And the monkey story was perfect for that. No matter where it occurs, it could have happened in France with an English monkey, (as far as a monkey can have a nationality). The story perfectly tells how easy it is to hate someone you’ve never seen before, and about whom you hardly know anything. I also wanted to let this story be properly balanced between its two forces: it is both a humorous and a tragical story. This is what makes its strength, I think.
Nationalism, ignorance, and angry mob behaviours. That was, to me, the heart of that story. But with one more crucial element: humour. ‘Cause you know, in France, we have a story like that, also. A good old lynching. It occured in 1870, so more than 50 years after the Hartlepool legend, in the Dordogne, near the city of Bordeaux. But the difference is: our story is not funny. It’s just horrible. It’s called the Hautefaye drama, and it’s about a whole village community becoming obsessed with one man, falsely accused of being Prussian ( it was during the war against Prussia, which would help birth a united Germany). The man was tortured awfully for a whole long day of local festivities, by people drinking and singing around his maimed body, then he was barbecued, and rumour has it singing around his maimed body, then he was barbecued, and rumour has it that people actually ate him on toast. Yep.
(illustration by Frederic Poincelet® for the book « Eat him if you want», by Jean Teulé, Juillard Editions)
As you can see, once again, English peole are funnier than French. We suck at creating funny situations. And obviously, we’re way too much obsessed by cooking issues.
But that’s another story.
The monkey, then. That monkey story seemed powerful to me because it was basically telling the same sad things about human nature as the Hautefaye drama was, but with something more in its DNA: that touch of delicious pre-Monty-Pythonic nonesense that helped to create the necessary distance to talk efficiently about nationalism, ignorance and angry mobs, in a way that everybody can understand it. Adults and children.
This is where Jérémie Moreau, the art designer, appears. I wanted this story to be told like a tale, not like a heavy piece of historical fact, because of course, everything is (hopefully) probably fantasy in that story. So Jérémie suggested to design it in a British style, inspired by Quentin Blake, Searle and other great British authors he admires. I thought the idea was fantastic. Then he created those characters, funny and scary in the same time.
There’s almost no historical sources about that episode, so I had to conceive the characters, the situations etc… I built up my story on two levels, corresponding to two age classes. On one side we follow the adults of Hartlepool, and in the meantime, we’re also following the children.
I wanted to give a special place to the kids in the story, ‘cause kids are always the flesh for future wars, the stock meat. Racism, nationalism, and even ignorance, are viral values that are transmitted from one generation to the next. It runs in the communities, in the families. And I wanted that to appear clearly in the book.