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Joyce’s Comic Strips

Keith Payne

James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner, by Alfonso Zapico and David Prendergast, O’Brien Press, 240 pp, €16.99, ISBN: 978-1847173638

With sunshine general all over Galicia, I turn to the net for something of home. However, a scan of Project Gutenberg’s Ulysses hauls up sixteen mentions of Spain and twenty-nine of Spanish, including hanks of Spanish onions, Spanish eyes, Spanish fly, a Spanish tasselled shirt, the Spanish cavalry, a Spanish photo, Spanish girls, more Spanish onions and “Spanish ale in Galway, the winebark on the winedark waterway”. Oh to be snug in Tig Neachtain’s this afternoon, adrift the winedark waterway.

And now with Stephen Joyce flailing on dry dock, we can add to that Iberian list the Spanish author and illustrator Alfonso Zapico from Zaragoza – a city which didn’t merit a mention in Ulysses, but came close perhaps with three Zarathustras.

Zapico’s comic portrait of Joyce, Dublinés – which won Spain’s National Comic Award in 2012 – has been translated by David Prendergast and was published by O’Brien Press in time for last year’s Bloomsday celebrations as James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner.

A portrait is exactly what it is; an impression described in words and drawn in comic form. And there are pictures to go with the sound, which led one reviewer to comment that “as is usual in graphic novels, the love affair is shown in an explicit manner at some points, including sections showing them cavorting together in the nude on Howth Head and naked on a bed in the town of Pola, now in Croatia”. The suggestion being that Jim and Nora’s lovemaking was so ungovernable as to shift the bed out of Croatia, where thankfully, post-coitus, things have returned to normal and it is back where it belongs, sans Jem the Shameman with Nora stuck into him.

But what is this about a “graphic novel”? Graphic it may be, but a novel it certainly is not. Ulysses is a novel; this is a biography – a comic biography – and what is wrong with that? Is comic too colourful for the dour tones of Joyceana? To settle the matter, I call in literary conquistador Jorge Luis Borges, who “was the first traveller from the Hispanic world to set foot upon the shores of Ulysses”:

Art’s possibilities for combination are not infinite, but they tend to be appalling. The Greeks begot the chimera, a monster with the head of a lion, with the head of a dragon, with the head of a goat; the theologians of the second century, the Trinity, in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are inextricably joined; the Chinese zoologists the ti-yiang, a bright-red, supernatural bird with six feet and six wings, but no face or eyes; the geometricians of the twentieth century the hypercube, a four-dimensional figure that encloses an infinite number of cubes and is bordered by eight cubes and twenty-four squares. Hollywood has just enriched this frivolous museum of teratology: by means of a perverse artifice they call dubbing, they devise monsters that combine the famous face of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo. How can we fail to acclaim our admiration for this bleak magic, for these ingenuous audio-visual deformations? (“On Dubbing”)

So. for Borges, it is pure comic. For Joyce too I suspect, since his own reckoning was that “on the honour of a gentleman, there’s not one single serious word in the whole thing”.

Divided into seven sections covering Family, the Young Rebel, New World, Exiles, Joyce & Co., Work in Progress and The Last Journey, Zapico’s comic sketches in the formative years of the young writer, the writer at work, the writer in his cups, cooing and wooing Nora, back in his cups again, sparring with editors, the daily round of work, fame, a cameo by Beckett and then blindness. It’s a playful book, and a colourful break from the business of Joyce.

The hero of the comic though is Zapico’s drawing. His jaunty line captures the arrogance and frenzy, the drunkenness and the frustration but most of all the comedy of Joyce, his light touches drawing out his own humour and that of Joyce the trickster as he traces the recognisable odyssey of Dublin, Trieste, Zurich and Paris, with welcome stops in Cork, Pola, Rome and London – for Jim and Nora’s wedding. His streets are as noisily melodic as Joyce sang them into being, with a grey-wash backdrop that wouldn’t be out of place for a walk-on part for a pair of gallants, say. Zapico’s pen and ink follow Joyce through his life with obvious affection for his creation. All the likenesses are there; Joyce the thinker, Joyce the drinker, Joyce the tormented and Joyce the tormentor, baby Joyce, brilliant Joyce and genius Joyce.

Zapico has done his research well. Alongside the usual tales of Joyce’s rebuff to Yeats: “what a pity we met so late: you’re too old for me to have any influence on your work”, his fear of storms, his daughter Lucia’s madness and chatting to Proust about truffles, there are some new details  – at least for this reader. With Prendergast doing a fine job of carrying Zapico’s Spanish back across to a convincing Dublinese.

And since most readers have neither the time nor the inclination to learn Norwegian for example so as to write a note to an Ibsen, or Spanish to read Zapico’s original, we have to be thankful to O’Brien Press for commissioning the translation and to David Prendergast for carrying it off. Latest figures suggest that about 2.5 per cent of the literature we read in Ireland comes from translation. In Spain that figure is 38 per cent, in France 35 per cent, in the Netherlands 45 per cent and rising. The deplorable state of foreign language literature in Ireland can mean that we are either gifted with a polyglot nation whose years of being glued to TG4 has loosened all our tongues or that we are a nation of readers with very short memories.

Without translation there would be no Homer or Virgil, no Cervantes or Dante, no García Márquez, no García Lorca, no Saramago, no Goethe, No Proust, no Neruda, no Paz, no Ibsen, No Bolaño, no Rimbaud, no Apollinaire, no Tolstoy, no Chekhov no Cú Chulainn, No Finn, No Niall of the Nine Hostages, no Bible, no Gaelic Revival, no Renaissance. In short, there would be nothing beyond that single or bifurcated tongue in your head today. And that is a poor world indeed.

Zapico, and his translator’s contribution then, opens the way, by commodius vicus as it were, to returning Joyce and his work to the city and citizenry that begot him, or at least those with a sense of humour.

(There is an accompanying comic to Zapico’s Portrait, as yet to be translated, which is La Ruta Joyce, Zapico’s comic account of creating Portrait. But sticking to Prendergast’s Dublinese might just be the thing to add some colour to the rainy days that seem to be general all over Ireland.)

Keith Payne is an Irish writer and translator living in Vigo, Galicia. He most recently represented Ireland in Poetry festivals in Almoloya, Zacatecas and Mexico City.



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