From our continental correspondent – What we need to know
Even though he had been making comics for decades, Flemish cartoonist Willy Linthout only received international acclaim with this painfully autobiographical graphic novel Years Of The Elephant, which he created after his son’s suicide and for which he was nominated for a number of international awards (and was one of my Best of the Year picks for 2009 – Joe).
In his new book, What We Need To Know (Conundrum International), Linthout widens his perspective to show us the whole family and background of his alter ego, Charles. Turns out he has two brothers : Roger, who battles a serious alcohol addiction, and Walter, who continued to live with their mother (about whom more later) after their father Gussie died. There’s also Anna and Henri, the cousins of the family.
And there’s Ma, a very practical woman who was forced to learn to survive with very little, and make do with whatever money her husband managed to bring in. She always finds solutions, however awkward and strange, for any problem in her Notebook, and refers to it whenever she is in doubt. After Ma dies, Walter sinks back in a disinterested lethargy, sensing his mother’s presence in every corner of the house, and feeling the weight of the Book on him.
Like Years Of The Elephant, Linthout tells the story of this family in a series of short scenes, each with their own conclusion and envoi. Every chapter hones in on one of the family members, whom Linthout presents with great love and affection, as he savours the solutions they find for the problems of modern life, and never judges their failures to overcome their hangups and addictions. They survive in a world of their own, while the world turns around them as an almost alien environment.
Linthout’s characters have very little to hold on to in life – the structure they try to maintain is very frail, and is constantly crumbling down. This is reflected in the artwork : Linthout’s art is not finalised or completed. He doesn’t ink his pages, nor does he rub away his sketches. At best, he clears up his pencils with broader lines in heavier pencil, leaving the original smudges and sketches. It makes for an unfinished, imperfect world that is constantly on the brink of teetering down.
The book was originally written in Flemish, and much work went into the translation. It would seem that the translator, Laura Watkinson, has painstakingly tried to preserve the typical colloquial turns and phrases that the characters use, even though they may sound awkward in English. It greatly adds to the originality and authenticity of the work – you can almost hear the people talk in their own patois.
More than the previous book, What We Need To Know is a broad love letter by an experienced creator to his own past and background, however messed up it may be. the book contains grippingly painful moments, which at the same time are sublimely poetic. When Ma tries to overcome her own guilt for not being present at the funeral of Charles’ son, she boils and buries the letter Charles sent her to berate her. That scene has everything the book stands for: love, compassion and above all a fiercely practical outlook on life.
What we Need to Know by Willy Linthout is published by Conundrum International. 182 pages, ISBN 978-1894994-80-4, and available to order from our webstore