In subtitling films of another language, the translator has the difficult task of having to use words accurately and sparingly. A conversation on screen can be an assault of speech, but the corresponding subtitles have not only to be only a sentence or two, they have to be memorable enough so that the few seconds they are on screen are sufficient. On their part, audiences have to train themselves to read the subtitles off the bottom of the screen while also processing all the other visual and aural information.
Writing a graphic novel must be somewhat like translating the subtitles of a film: the graphic novelist must find a balance between text and image so that the one does not overwhelm the other. While there are no constraints on time as there are in cinema, in a graphic novel words must be telegraphically precise. Or so one would imagine.
Amruta Patil’s first graphic novel, Kari, is emphatically not stingy with words. On average, every page carries at least the equivalent of one paragraph; often there is only one panel on a page and a whole couple of paragraphs of text. Not being a graphic novel aficionado, I have no preconceptions and this does not put me off; on the contrary, I am struck by how text and image interact more vividly. In Kari, the text does the work of a voice over: the voice is poetic and introspective; often the text sits perched atop a single panel as if poised for flight. This is not a fanciful conceit: Patil’s work frequently invokes images of flight and falling, and the thin edge of indecision on which her eponymous heroine teeters.
Kari begins with two women on the terraces of their respective buildings. They step off, one after the other. Ruth’s fall is broken by a safety net and she survives only to leave the city, flying out. Kari falls into a sewer and survives.
Reborn (or ‘twice-born’ as she once refers to herself, the phrase uninflected by irony), Kari begins her double life: as a writer in an ad agency and as boatman at night – who will restore life to the sewers, help it breathe and ease the passing of whatever the city discards. Kari’s world is at once mythic and impossible, grotty and real - her flatmates and their boyfriends, separated from each other by carefully placed bookshelves; Kusumtai whose disapproval of everyone except of Kari is loud and acerbic; her commutes on the train – these belong to the visible world, the one that we can all accept without question. But the other world that Kari inhabits – the one containing the absent Ruth; the side roads that open out sometimes on her way from the station to work, and lead to mysterious houses and old ladies; her duties as boatman; even her ad campaigns for Fairytale Hair – these are shadow worlds that might be real or might not. Patil’s use of colour in this context is significant: except for one or two episodes depicting artifice or pure joy, she rarely uses bright colours. Her drawings are mostly black and white, punctuated by nearly-black blues, acid green, rust or dun.
Kari is concerned with birth and death. Not just the character, but the novel itself. As boatman, Kari is midwife to those who make the crossing from birth to death willingly or unwillingly. She comforts both her colleague at the agency, Lazarus, and the discarded foetuses she finds in the sewer in the same way: with gentleness and honesty. Two chapters towards the end are significantly titled ‘The Umbilical’ (which is also the title of Patil’s blog) and ‘The Boatman’. Birth – the untimely, the difficult, the reluctant and the painful – is separated from death only by a page. In the penultimate chapter, Kari is witness to Angel’s death. Kari, whose attraction to the dying Angel just avoids being voyeuristic (Angel says to her at one point, ‘Looking for your fix of decay again? Go play with people your own age, Kari.’) turns up in time to listen to ‘Angel’s drowning breath’ and watch her slip away. With delicacy, Patil shows only Kari receiving Angel’s call and then, once she is dead, taking away her cat, leaving Angel’s immaculate apartment.
Patil’s images are distinctive, with thickly drawn outlines and a strong use of vertical and horizontal lines. She references Klimt in one of two memorably bright panels. But that is a rare reference*. Most of her panels are the equivalent of close shots or close-ups. One chapter, where Kari recalls how she met Ruth for the first time, reminded me very strongly of a scene in Chungking Express (this scene also, coincidentally, takes place in a station), where two people walk towards each other in a signature Kar-wai/Doyle step-printed, slow motion style and there is instant recognition. ‘Whatever love laws have to be broken, the first few seconds suffice. Everything else is a matter of time and incident’ the text under these images goes. It might be a voice over straight out of a Wong Kar-Wai film, except he would have been talking about the loss of love rather than the finding of it.
Kari ends on a fairytale note, invoking the ad campaign that Kari and Lazarus worked on and won awards for: ‘In a faraway city where the palette was pure and bright, Ruth stirred in her sleep, and smiled.’ But the accompanying image – a full-page illustration that is neither in colour nor hard-edged and exact – seems to say something else. If this is a promise, it is an unstable one, an invitation to step off the ledge once again. If Patil indeed intends to have a sequel, it will be interesting to see where she will take this.
A short graphic story can be found here. It appears to share several concerns with Kari and makes for an interesting juxtaposition, though I’m not sure which came first. ** (link via Ultrabrown.) Amruta Patil’s website is here.
* There are other echoes in Kari. Does the Boatman have webbed feet, I want to know. Do the inhabitants of the
– Kari’s flat – fly out the window at night? Is their furniture suspended from the ceiling? Jeanette Winterson seems to stand at Patil’s shoulder, watching the quality of her prose with approval. There is one reference to A Confederacy of Dunces in the book, a facet to Kari’s character that I wish Patil had explored more. Crystal Palace
** The quote that is the title of this post comes from this story.