Thursday, October 05, 2006

Graphic Novel Review: Mendacity

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Mendacity: One Woman's Ordeal
Art by Sophie Cossette
Written by Tamara Faith Berger
Kiss Machine
$4.00

What if Little Annie Fannie was a Moldovan Existentialist?

Mendacity is the latest in Kiss Machine's new line of "graphic novellas." A previous volume, last year's Skim, won an honourable mention from the Wright Awards jury for its smart writing and razor-sharp draughtmanship, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this new offering on the magazine rack of my local bookstore.

The comic tells the story of Inna Rosca, a bored young woman from Moldova who answers a classified ad for foreign workers in order to escape her abusive home life and the general political malaise of her homeland. Perhaps naively, she signs up with an outfit that turns out to be a criminal gang and she soon finds herself with a group of other women, without a passport and in the hands of a human trafficking ring.

What follows is a grim tale of life in an Israeli brothel where Inna is kept as a sex-slave, at the service of an endless stream of johns. Curiously, she maintains a sort of bored composure throughout, whether being gang-raped, listening to the elaborate philosophical rationalizations of her pimp, or engaging in more passionate sex with her lover and errant "rescuer," a married john named Hersh. Her constant companion and only solace is a book, "On the Heights of Despair" by the Romanian-born existentialist philosopher E.M. Cioran.

I almost don't know what to make of all this depressing story besides "life is bleak, especially if you are a Romanian prostitute in an Israeli brothel." I suspect the ideas of Cioran (at least his non-Fascist ideas) are meant to serve as a sort of philosophical underpinning to the narrative, his philosophy of the absurdity of life and human degradation a back-beat or counterpoint to the relentlessly depressing ordeal endured by Inna. The overt, resigned sexuality of the protagonist and her existential leanings remind me of Ana, the titular heroine of a graphic novel by the Argentine F. Solano Lopez. The Candide-like journey of Ana is equally as depressing as Inna's but Ana at least has the benefit of actually discussing philosophy with her mentor, Simone de Beauvoir, whereas Inna must make do with the cold comfort of the printed word and the murmured endearments and banalities of her lover.

The artwork is quite dark, with lots of solid blacks and awkwardly posed, angular figures that impart a slightly claustophobic, disoriented feeling to the narrative. At times I found the cartooning a little unclear --a tiny panel showing Inna being beaten by her new pimp almost looks like a disembodied hand is slapping the pimp, for instance. Unfortunate, not least because so much of what is said in Mendacity is either hypocritical or ironic, meaning character actions and other graphic aspects of the book have to carry quite a bit of the story. After all, it is in this way, through visual symbols, that Inna seems to find a way to assert some control over her life and body. Although her passport and letters home are intercepted, the talisman of her existentialist book and the various tatoos she inscribes on herself (rising sun, Star of David) manage to say much more about her personality and worldview than any words or even sexual act (and there is a quite a bit of sex in this comic). Ultimately, although we last see a tearful Inna having sex in a garbage-strewn alley, we can only assume that she has made some sort of peace with her situation, as she notes: "You have to have nerves of steel to do this kind of work."

Preview Mendacity at Kiss Machine

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