If you like Garfield, you won't like this

Review: Richard Short's Klaus.

Klaus
Richard Short
Nobrow, 68pp, £15

Richard Short's Klaus the cat is lazy, prone to cod philosophising, and has four-panel "adventures" with dubious continuity between episodes. But if you dive in expecting something like an even more generic version of Garfield, the blandest of the US gag strips, you're in for a nasty surprise.

While Klaus owes a clear debt to the US comic strip form, it takes their broad structure and then subverts it, creating something altogether weirder. The strip is not unlike Greg Stekelman's Sad Jokes (sample joke: A man walks into a pub. He is an alcoholic whose drink problem is destroying his family.), in being syntactically similar, even identical, to something comforting and familiar, while aiming for an utterly different meaning.

If there's one strip in particular which Klaus is aimed at, it's Charles Schultz's Peanuts. The art — simple black-and-white linework — is similar, and certain visual cues give it away, none more so than Klaus lying on his back on a mound of earth. And Peanuts is less hard to subvert than you might think if your memories of the strip remain tinted with nostalgia. Charlie Brown's existential despair, and the meanderings the strip occasionally fell into in its later years, could have been lifted wholesale and put in Klaus.

Other links are just as evident, though. The Garfield connection shines through — there's only so much variation on the lazy cat theme, and all the variation in the world won't sever that link — as does the weirdness of Tove Jansson's Moomin strips. Short draws his cats, Klaus and Otto, as standard cartoon animals, but things take a turn for the strange at his portrayal of other species. Birds have hands, a dog wears glasses, and weirdest of all are the rats, who are drawn as six-inch high naked people with tails. One particularly bizarre strip (and choosing the oddest ones here is not an easy challenge) involves Otto seeing the rats just a bit too well rendered: their lithe, naked bodies cavorting in the grass for the first two panels (tails still fully present), before switching to the regular viewpoint and showing them running away from his leering eyes. The punchline, delivered by Otto as the last of the rats throws an acorn at him: "Sometimes I'm just overcome by the strength of my visual perception".

The next strip, incidentally, features two moles discussing the fact that a cloud looks like a cloud — "In moles, imagination is governed by reason!" — before "forest spirit" walks behind them into a hole in a tree, and lays in wait, "to feast upon the bounty of unwary travellers". The spirit has Otto's body and a homunculus' face. He is never seen again.

My favourite strip — one of the few with a real conclusion, and one which could, with swapped characters, pass unnoticed in a Peanuts anthology — involves Klaus being repeatedly told he's doing "that condescending look", eventually gazing into a pond and concluding that he must have "condescending features".

Occasionally a string of strips will develop into a proto-storyline, as happens when Klaus hatches an egg or Otto gets taken to court for pushing a rat over with a stick. While they serve to make the book more coherent, though, it's clear they aren't where Short's heart is. The stories generally skip beats, make no sense, and end abruptly.

You may have noticed I've been focusing on Short's influences, on my highs and lows, on the weird strips and the strange turns, and not saying anything, really, about the quality of the actual book. And that's because I honestly don't know. I want to hate it: it makes no sense. Nothing happens. The characters wander around, exchanging words, and then the strip ends. Lather rinse repeat. And yet there's something so charming about the whole thing that I can't bring myself to do so.

The best shortcut might be this: Take a few Peanuts strips. Cut out the last panel, shuffle, and stick them back in in a random order. If the resulting non-sequiturs and aborted jokes leave you feeling bored and uninspired, steer clear of Klaus. But if you still find the greatness of Schultz's creation shines through, if form alone can give you enjoyment, then maybe Klaus might be for you after all.

Photograph: Nobrow Press/Richard Short

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism