Saturday, 29 March 2008

Story is a Place

John Boyne and Shaun Tan were speakers at the Storylines Seminar in the Heritage Hotel, Christchurch, New Zealand on 7th June 2007.

1. Introduction by Trevor Agnew:

'Welcome to John Boyne from Ireland. Welcome to Shaun Tan from Australia.
This year’s Heritage Hotels Seminar for the Storylines Festival has the theme
“Story is a Place” which is particularly appropriate for both of our guests tonight.
In their latest books, each has created a place that is unique.

In his picture book, The Arrival, Shaun Tan has created a place like no other, so we can all experience the feeling of being a new arrival there.

In his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne has taken as his subject a place that many felt could not be described and he has found an unforgettable way to bring it before us – through the eyes of an innocent child.

Both of these books are masterpieces in the true sense of the word. They are superb pieces of work which prove that their creators have achieved mastery of their profession. These are both young men with the major part of their careers ahead of them. It will be exciting to see what they create in the years ahead.

Tonight, however, we will be looking at what they have already achieved. Both are annoyingly modest, so I will just blow their trumpets for them.

John Boyne is a novelist, born in Dublin in 1971. He was a student in the last Creative Writing course run by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia and ten years later, he was back at the same course – as a published writer. He has published five novels for adults. The Thief of Time and Crippen were both nominated for literary awards. He has also written stories for children, which were broadcast on television in Ireland.
The Boy in Striped Pyjamas has been No 1 in bestseller lists as diverse as Ireland and Australia. It has won two book awards in Ireland, Bisto Book of the Year in the UK, and was nominated for awards in the USA and Italy, as well as the Carnegie Medal. It has already been translated into many languages and is currently being filmed.

The book has an unusual, in fact unique, publisher’s note, written by the highly respected David Fickling. He refuses to say anything about its contents: “We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.”
And I might just ask are there any people in the audience tonight who have NOT read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? Right, we’ll ask the rest of you to be very careful tonight not to spoil anyone’s appreciation of the final section of the book.

Shaun Tan was the “good drawer” in his school class in Fremantle, Australia, where he was born in 1974, and he says he became an illustrator because it was a job which allowed him to “make a living from drawing and painting.”

His early published work was in science fiction, and he has won many Australian and international sf illustration awards. About this he wrote, “There is nothing quite like the acute consciousness of being alive on a very strange planet.” This is an excellent description of the books he has created.

For his artwork in The Rabbits and Memorial Day he won the Aurealis Award, and the Australian Children's Book of the Year Award. The Red Tree was the Honour Book of the Year and won the Patricia Wrightson Prize. The Lost Thing, which he both wrote and illustrated, won the Aurealis Award and was the Picture Book of the Year Honour Book at the Australian Children's Book of the Year Awards. It is also great fun.

Shaun Tan’s books are published internationally, and some have been made into animated films and plays. He’s enormously popular and those who recall his last visit to Christchurch, speaking in the packed College of Education auditorium will appreciate what a following he has.
Over the last few years, however, no new Shaun Tan books have appeared. What was he doing? The answer appeared in this massive and marvellous picture book – or is it a photo album? – entitled simply The Arrival.

It’s only June and already The Arrival has been short-listed for the Australian Children's Book of the Year Award. It has also won the NSW Premier's Literary Awards as Book of the Year.
Rayma Turton says, “Shaun Tan’s been getting the most amazing newspaper space and even television time here after winning the NSW Premier’s Literary Award with The Arrival, ahead of the likes of Peter Carey. The one that really amused me was when, at one of the Writers’ Festival occasions, he was asked to read from his book, The Arrival, to the audience!”

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to ask Shaun Tan to read from The Arrival, although John Boyne will be reading us some extracts from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. '


The Arrival Shaun Tan, Lothian Books, Melbourne, 124 pages, hardback, NZ$39.99. [NZ agents: Hachette Livre] 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.

This review by Trevor Agnew was published on 2nd June 2007 in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.


THE BOY IN STRIPED PYJAMAS John Boyne, David Fickling Books, 216 pages, hardback, NZ$34.95. ISBN 0-385-60940-X

Bruno, the main character, is nine years old but this story is not for nine-year-olds.

An interesting question, with more than literary significance, is how a writer can make readers care about the murder of millions. One way is to introduce one or two of the millions and show them as human. (Morris Gleizman did this brilliantly in Once, with a Polish boy running from the German authorities.) But what if the reader is unsympathetic to the murder victims, unwilling to grant them human status? A remarkable solution is in The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, where John Boyne uses nine-year-old Bruno’s perception of events to gently introduce a situation that is not at all gentle.

Bruno, who sees and hears more than he understands, is not so much innocent as self-absorbed, firmly centred on his own activities. He is disturbed when the servants pack the family’s possessions but relieved that his father is moving from Berlin to a more important position. Bruno knows his father is important because he is often visited by “men in fantastic uniforms…and they were very polite to Father and told each other that he was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him”.
Bruno is disappointed by his new country home, which he thinks is called Out-With. There is nobody to play with although he can see some people on the other side of an enormous fence. “Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno,” explains Father. Even before Bruno sees the low huts and smoke stacks in the distance, his readers have worked out what Father’s new job is and who the Fury might be. Bruno never grasps what is going on but we appreciate the moral quandary facing his parents and those around them. Then Bruno’s quest for a playmate leads him to the boy of the title. What follows has the pre-ordained completeness of a fable and I defy anyone to stop reading at this point.

With its tense moments and tragic misunderstandings, this superbly-written novel is a sensitive and thoughtful introduction to an unspeakably awful occurrence.

This review by Trevor Agnew was published on 28th January 2006 in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.

No comments: