My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Everyone’s a declinist nowadays, so let’s hear some good news: the last decade has seen an unprecedented boom in definitive translations and editions of the masterpieces of world comics, many of them under review here, from the treasures of shōjo and josei manga (The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter: Fashion Unfriendly) to dizzying Euro-esoterica (The Incal, the Obscure Cities series), and especially the genius of Argentina: The Eternaut, Mort Cinder, Alack Sinner, and the topic of this piece, writer Juan Sasturain and artist Alberto Breccia’s Perramus: The City and Oblivion.
Fantagraphics is publishing Breccia’s corpus systematically in their Alberto Breccia Library series. He is renowned for his surreally brooding style, heavy with black spotting and slashing bursts of white or gray, accomplished with a variety of inventive methods, including inkwash, collage, photography, and more. His vision sometimes proved controversial. For example, his and writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s 1969 remake of Oesterheld’s classic ‘50s alien-invasion series The Eternaut was canceled in magazine serialization, partially because readers complained they couldn’t decipher the psychedelic art, which portrayed even mundane suburban settings with delirious linework and collage. (Fantagraphics has also recently reprinted The Eternaut 1969 in a beautiful hardcover volume, and more of Breccia’s work, including his and Oesterheld’s graphic biography of Che Guevara and his celebrated H. P. Lovecraft adaptations, is on the way.)
Perramus is a series of four graphic novels created mostly in the 1980s after Breccia asked the Argentine novelist and comics critic Juan Sasturain to write him a script for an adventure comic they could sell to the European market. Sasturain responded with the story of the eponymous hero, a resistance fighter during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, a CIA-backed reign of terror against leftists and other elements deemed subversive.
In the first volume, The Pilot of Oblivion, our hero discovers that his revolutionary cell has been discovered; Breccia’s magic-realist skull-faced Marshals are coming to disappear them in the night. Panicked, he flees and leaves his comrades to be killed. Later, in a bar called the Aleph, a madame offers him a tryst with a prostitute named Oblivion, and he wakes the next day with no memory and no individual identity beyond a sense of cultural history. He takes the name Perramus from the brand name of his jacket—perhaps the leftist authors’ satire, which will recur in other contexts, on capitalism’s usurpation of human identity. He eventually joins up with an Afro-Uruguayan sailer named Canelones and an old aviator known as Enemy, for his service as a despotic island regime’s official scapegoat. Together they carry on the work of resistance to the dictatorship, in which they are surprisingly joined by that icon of the Argentine imagination, Jorge Luis Borges. Of his political shift from right to left, Borges explains to Perramus,
There was a time I affiliated with the right, with the conservative party, as an act of political skepticism, of my vocation to fight lost causes. Now you could assume without mistake that my motives are the same.
As I once speculated of Joseph Conrad, a reactionary writer of adventure stories whom Borges admired, the modern writer’s conservatism can be a subversive force when it defends everything that militant progress, which itself comes in left and right variants, wants to exterminate.
The second volume, The Soul of the City, is my favorite. Here Borges leads Perramus, Canelones, and Enemy on a quest to find seven people who each embody pieces of the soul of Santa María, Breccia and Sasturain’s stand-in for Buenos Aires. These are the most inventive of the volume’s fictions, Borgesian, yes, but also bawdy and bitter. Our quartet discovers a prostitute who will not accept the regime’s skull-faced currency, a sexual athlete who finds himself unable to perform when he falls in love, an old man who won’t allow the Marshals to commandeer his apartment building for their political spectacles, and other such figures of integrity—each of whom, furthermore, corresponds to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, as Breccia and Sasturain side with all that is barred and banned by the righteous regime.
The third volume, The Island of Guano, is an ingenious but overlong postcolonial thriller/satire that sees our heroes return to Enemy’s island, a de facto American economic colony whose extractive bird guano industry is supervised by the Kissinger-esque American Mr. Whitesnow. If the prior stories emphasized art and imagination, this one runs on comic action, with its revolutionary circus performers and climactic rain of shit (either Bolaño read this or both Perramus and By Night in Chile are alluding to a common precursor). It is also impelled by a sarcastic commentary on the U.S.-led world order, as everybody from Reagan to the Pope to Spielberg to Third World comprador dictators are caricatured. This volume’s most fascinating figure is Uncle Galapagos, a stories revolutionary who promotes the mysterious “tortoise strategy,” according to which, “If we eliminate time, all roads, slow or fast, lead to revolution, and so they are irrelevant,” an echo of Borges’s own conservative revolutionism. Incidentally, Sasturain and Breccia use the prologue of this volume to rectify another historical injustice: in their Cervantine fiction, after Borges publishes his account of his adventures with Perramus, wittily titled Fricciones, he is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The fourth volume, Tooth for Tooth, is the longest but slightest. In this adventure, Gabriel García Márquez sends Perramus and friends on a quest to recover lost teeth from the skull of the Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel. This quest reprises The Soul of the City’s theme of rearticulating the identity of the wounded nation, this time in a more gentle comic key. Gabo’s mission sends our heroes to Las Vegas, Paris, Tokyo, Havana, and elsewhere, as Frank Sinatra, representing crass American brutality, and Fidel Castro, representing genial but reductive international communism, make appearances. The conclusion, where Borges quotes Cavafy’s “Ithaca” on the superiority of the journey to the destination, movingly leaves open the nation’s future.
Overall, Perramus is a feverish dream of a decade or so of Argentine cultural transformation. If it is sometimes hard to know what Breccia intends to draw, we’re never unsure what he expects us to feel about it. The series’s later episodes rely too much, I think, on caricature and somewhat crude comedy—I think of the dick-measuring scene in Frank Sinatra’s office—but the earlier chapters combine nightmare and satire with a longing for humane culture captured in the figure of the Maestro, as Perramus and his comrades call Borges, who is the series’s most well- and touchingly developed character. Moreover, Sasturain and Breccia’s generous reevalutation of Borges, their portrait of an imagination that stands against tyranny, is a moving gesture: artistic solidarity against totalizing politics.
The book’s own packaging and reception is not always so broad-minded. The back cover hails Perramus as “an act of resistance in and of itself,” a bit of U.S.-centric Age-of-Trump pabulum at odds with the work’s own tone (and doubly sickening when one reflects that the CIA is a heroic agency to the anti-Trump “resistance,” while being the source of the fascist repression seen in this novel). When in The Soul of the City our quartet rescues a cat who embodies the “commendable indifference” Borges finds appropriate in a time of tyranny, we are not being urged to resist overtly, and Uncle Galapagos’s tortoise strategy is another recommendation of radical passivity. On the other hand, the “Translator’s Note” is a veritable ode to anguish over what to do with Sasturain and Breccia’s rather brusque handling of racial issues, which, to my mind, is more bothersome in the art than the writing, given the collision of Breccia’s readiness to caricature with caricature’s role in the iconography of anti-black racism. The translator confesses a mild whitewashing of the text inspired by a determination not to do “harm”—that much-abused word of our own censorious clime. Also alert to harm is the only major review of Perramus to appear so far, which complains, not unreasonably, of our authors’ treatment of women and sex; yet a book less coarsely bawdy would very simply not be this book.
I would never say that the ideologies of artworks shouldn’t be noted by critic, translator, and marketer, only that these ideologies are not a major work’s main source of interest. Sasturain and Breccia beautifully demonstrate this thesis when they make Borges—addressed throughout the book as an “old reactionary”—their national hero and bard of freedom. Fidel Castro complains of our heroes’ search for Gardel’s teeth, “If men would put so much effort into changing the direction of the country, instead of these things, maybe history would be different”—an unimaginative and dictatorial complaint to which Borges inadvertently replies hundreds of pages earlier when he quotes Stephen’s remark to Bloom in Ulysses: “We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.” It is enough that freedom lives in Perramus’s imaginative flights and visual inventions, which a more overt will to “resist” would paradoxically be almost certain to repress.