Bulkhead by Ciaran Cross

Categories:  Reviews

By Ciaran Cross

I thought I’d lost this. I was chuffed to bits when I found it this morning, because it’s a really good read–worth repeat reads in fact.  Some things are left unexplained, leaving you to ponder them as you pack for your holiday, while others are unnecessarily explained when they needn’t have been.  The art first though: at first glance it’s got a touch of Renee French about it, that misty quality, but on closer inspection it’s less dreamy and, I don’t know, humid?  I’m probably only using that because the story takes place in a Central American country, but he’s got the closeness of that atmosphere spot on.

There’s a great page of Chris Ware-esque tiny panels showing our journalist finding and entering his hotel room that ends with a shallow landscape through his windows bars.  Same again on the facing page, waking up in a sweaty room, scratching himself, having a crap and trying to light a fag on a mosquito coil.  Our hero, as much as he is, is less mild mannered, more of a listener than a talker, being a freelance reporter sent to cover the guerrilla actives somewhere or other.  He has few friends while he’s there, being a nuisance to the few he meets at best, while being robbed in the kindest way.

“You will see that we will not sit quietly in boxes, tagged and clipped like pigeons.  Holed up in the squares of some chessboard for you to watch from the corporate box of the box corporation…you must climb down or fall.  We intend to shit upon your ivory fence” This is divided across tiny panels containing pigeons, chessboards and pieces, cracked eggs and men sat on fences.  This is a theme; things put and kept in boxes, people sitting on fences, oh and our fella’s called Bridges.  Boxes, fences and bridges; it all means something .

Bananas are used to symbolise something or other–I’m not very good with subtleties.  I need it explained pho-net-ic-ally, but I enjoy it when it’s not.  This leaves me pondering it after it’s been lost in my bag for a while, which is a good thing because after all, isn’t that the point?  Anyway, bananas are put in boxes and

“Only one is produced on this scale.  Subjected to a long process of standardization.  The goal of which is to make uniform through the systematic eradication of difference…now..banannas…are too genetically similar to be resistant to any viruses that develop…such a virus…wipe the entire banana trade from the face of the earth… there condition is not so different to ours.”

Aahh, I get it; we’re bananas!  I’m a banana in a box, or on a fence called bridges or something.  It’s all the clearer now.  It’s illustrated with exhicutions, bullets in a row and deaths as graphs and charts.  If I knew more about Central American politics I could enlighten you further but I’ve got to decide which pants to take on holiday.

There’s a good and tense scene when our journalist and reluctant guides are stopped at a checkpoint and their pigeons our forcibly taken from them.  It’s all in Spanish (I think, sorry) and would be very good just at that.  But the Spanish is translated at the back, on a page of “explanation, gloss, excuse and apology”.  You don’t need this.  That bit in The Killing Fields when everyone’s getting shouted at in Khmer, without subtitles, and you don’t know what the crap is going on because you don’t understand the shouty language; that’s brilliant.

You feel their fear and confusion.  It should have been like that in this book.  If you get it (and you should) don’t read the translation at the back because the book is a very good one, in part because of this scene.  Of course if you can read Spanish then that entire last bit is wasted on you.

–Oliver East

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