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Book of the week

books Updated: Dec 12, 2009 11:48 IST
Samrat
Samrat
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

BooksKabul Disco

Nicolas Wild

Harpercollins

Rs 295 | pp 159

In the December of 2005, Nicolas Wild, an out-of-work illustrator from Paris, lands up in Kabul to work on a comic book explaining the Afghan Constitution to children. He’s not a war junkie; this is not his dream job. But it’s better than no job and no flat, and it’s only for two months. So Wild decides to take it.

His first impression of Kabul is recorded in a series of frames that show the drive into the city from the airport. Wild, who is sitting in a van with other passengers, finds everyone else — including the driver — talking on their cell phones. His reaction: “First report from Kabul. They have cell phones in this country.” He looks out of the window and sees a series of cell phone hoardings.

He spends his first night in Kabul reading the Afghan Constitution by lantern light in his freezing room. There’s no electricity and the temperature drops to about -15 °C. So he gets the bokhari (stove) going by burning the Constitution.

The book is a diary of sorts of his stay in Kabul. It is an autobiographical graphic travelogue of the kind made famous by Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian illustrator, who produced similar accounts of his stays in Pyongyang and Shenzhen. Joe Sacco, a Maltese-American comic book artist and journalist, had done one from Palestine, but that was more a work of reportage than autobiographical observations.

Wild sticks to telling his own story. He has a sardonic wit he turns on all around him and even himself. The book is a funny and fast read. It provides a window into the everyday life of the motley crew of expats in Kabul — the fancy restaurants with their French food and wine, the occasional tension in town when something bad happens, the cynicism. In one scene, a new arrival who is joining their team is being introduced to his colleagues. “You’ll see, Afghanistan is a land of contrasts,” Wild tells the man. “And for us a land of contracts,” his boss adds with a laugh.

The Afghans themselves make brief appearances. They’re depicted as warm, friendly and curious, though gruff, except the political classes who are shown as a collection of warlords, criminals and ‘retired’ Taliban.

The book ends rather abruptly with a promise of more. Apart from the ending, there’s not much else to complain about. The uncomplicated drawings and simple narrative work very well. They show us aspects of the Afghanistan story that more traditional reports and books usually miss.

Following Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre’s The Photographer, this is the second significant graphic travelogue on Afghanistan. It’s further proof of the success of this form of storytelling that can combine lightness and pace with insight and depth.