The graphic novel has become a highly respected genre of writing. What was once derided as a “pop” form of literature – comic books for teens – the graphic novel is now used by many great authors, such as Marjan Satrapi and Art Speigelman. And Lamia Ziade’s “Bye, Bye Bablyon” is no exception. Her novel is a jarring, disquieting, yet deeply touching exploration of the beginning of the Lebanese civil war from the eyes of a child.
Cartoonists, such as Art Speigelman, have been so successful because of their ingenuity; for example, in his graphic novel “Manus,” Speigelman describes a man’s journey though Auschwitz in animalistic terms – Nazis are the cats, Poles the pigs, and Jews the mice. Ziade is equally creative in “Bye, Bye Bablyon.” Unlike a conventional comic strip with dialogue inside framed drawings, the novel is a collection of sketchbook images interspersed with type set and all in first person narrative. Her images are childlike and crudely drawn; however, the reader can subtlety discern the emotional expressiveness in the simplicity. The art is accompanied by a sparse text that describes the narrator’s recollection of being a young child in the early years of the civil war.
Early on in the story, the narrator recalls a memory of a shopping mall in Beirut – the gum she once loved to chew and the escalator in the shopping complex. The reader can envision the brands of cereal, marshmallows, and rainbow-painted shopping carts that shine as vibrantly as a pop-art canvas. A sudden shift in the narrative and Ziade shows her audience the weapons of war. She adds simple captions to the pictures of Kalashnikovs and other rifles, describing them in cold, cataloged detail. This is the fast plunge into war.
The narrative follows no particular plot or arc, save for the impact the war had on her family. It reads like a series of recollections, fragmented moments: big and small, personal and political, happy and sad. All of this is told through deceptively simple drawings and simple language. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is that the earliest recollections are about loss. The war took normal life away, but, for a child who has never known anything else, war and loss became the norm. There is an element of “anti-bildungsroman,” a concept used to describe a narrative that emphasizes the diminution of the people, places, and things that define the protagonist’s identity. This stripping away, this reduction of life caused by the war, creates a heartbreaking feeling of despair, which is only made more brutally spare by the innocence of images and voice that inhabits the novel.
Ziade’s story is idiosyncratic and challenging. However, the open-minded reader will understand the power of her graphic novel. This is not necessarily a work one should seek for a detailed account of the political or military dimensions of the war. Much like Rawi Hage’s “DeNiro’s Game,”the impact of “Bye, Bye Babylon” is personal, internal, and is meant to humanize conflict. Especially for the reader who wants to understand Lebanon and the Middle East through the eyes of its own people, Ziade’s comic strips should be taken seriously.