Saturday, 1 December 2007

It is highly appropriate that Shaun Tan, a man who has created a place like no other, is one of the literary figures chosen to speak on the theme Story is a Place. In his graphic novel, The Arrival, Tan has created an amazingly bizarre society where the human spirit triumphs. Trevor Agnew has been visiting that alien world.

The Arrival Shaun Tan, Lothian Books/ Hachette Livre, Melbourne, 124 pages, hardback, NZ$39.99. ISBN 0-7344-0694-0

You never know when a book will strike with its full impact. Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival, certainly impressed me when I first turned its pages and encountered its strange unrecognisable world. It really hit me between the eyes, however, several days later when I was in Guangzhou’s underground railway system, trying to understand an automatic token dispensing machine. Instructions, money, machine and tokens were all incomprehensible. I suddenly realised that I was in the exact position of Tan’s nameless hero in The Arrival.

Told entirely in pictures – sombre pencil drawings resembling sepia photographs in an old family album – The Arrival follows the experiences of an emigrant, a man who leaves his young wife and daughter in order to travel to a far land. Dark shadows – the suggestion of serpents’ tails – hint at the threats hanging over their lives. His journey, by train and ship with crowds of other worried-looking refugees, echoes the great emigrant voyages of earlier centuries. When he reaches a city of towering skyscrapers, however, it is like nothing we have ever seen. The buildings, clothes, machines, transport systems, animals and plants are all strange and unexpected.

As the man moves through the immigration process and begins his search for work, the reader shares his bewilderment with this alien society. The written language and the strange mechanisms are bafflingly unrecognisable, although at the same time they have a clear internal logic; the clocks use three interlocking circles to show the time. When he draws a picture of a bed, he is guided to a lady who rents him a room but what are the odd devices for? And where is the bed?

There are moments of great humour as the man begins working. Unable to read he pastes posters upside down and, as a deliveryman, he misses a sign warning of fierce animals. A recurring theme is the helpfulness of the locals to the confused stranger. He is made welcome and joins in their activities. Each person who aids him turns out to be a migrant, each with their own (sometimes grim) story. When the man is finally reunited with his family, there is a lovely concluding sequence where his daughter is able to offer assistance to a confused new arrival.

The Arrival is a stunning creation with a universal message about the human spirit, particularly relevant in New Zealand where we are all migrants. Yet strange flying machines, odd symbiotic animals and weird landscapes come as no surprise to Shaun Tan’s many enthusiastic readers. They are used to meeting them regularly in what he describes as his “picture books for older readers.” In The Lost Thing (2000) a boy rescues a stray alien creature which looks like a giant red teapot with tentacles.

Born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1974, Shaun Tan took an early interest in science fiction and his first published illustration was, appropriately, a robot kangaroo which appeared on the cover of an Australian sf magazine. While studying fine arts at the University of Western Australia, he created many more sf and fantasy magazine pictures. On his popular website ( Tan now credits science fiction with giving him an extraordinarily wide range of subjects to illustrate, “Stories about time, space, death, history, philosophy, art, sexuality, mathematics, ethics, horror and much more – usually set in some other world (past, future or inter-planetary) than our own.”

Shaun Tan is now one of Australia’s most highly regarded book illustrators. Books like Memorial (1999), written by Gary Crew, with its stunning double-page illustrations, have proved popular with all ages. His award-winning illustrations for John Marsden’s The Rabbits (winner of a Book of the Year Award) use hostile machines to symbolise the process by which new arrivals in a country bring environmental destruction with them.

The Arrival, his latest work, is also his most ambitious, with the pictures carrying the entire narrative load. So much is conveyed by expressions and gestures that readers may overlook the fact that Shaun Tan the storyteller has created them all. We have been made to experience everything that happens to the man. Now we know – just as our forebears did – the feeling of being a new arrival in a strange world. The Arrival is a superb tribute to the resilience and power of the human spirit.

Trevor Agnew

This review appeared in The Press, Christchurch on Saturday 2nd June 2007, as a precursor to Shaun Tan and John Boyne (author of The Boy in Striped Pyjamas) taking part in the Heritage Hotels Seminar Series, as part of the annual Storylines Festival of New Zealand Children’s Writers and Illustrators.
Both spoke at the Christchurch Seminar, Story is a Place, on Thursday 7 June 2007, at a seminar chaired by Trevor Agnew.

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