Let me get this out: this book is brilliant. It’s also an interesting genre: I’d call it a graphic documentary, because it’s definitely not a graphic novel. If you read either Spanish or French, I can only recommend it (the original French title is Le goût de la terre). Sadly, I don’t think it’s been translated to English.
Two French comic artists, Baudoin and Troubs, travel to Colombia to interview people about their experience of the civil conflict that has been raging in the country for decades (on a side note, there was a very interesting piece on the difficulties of brokering peace in Foreign Policy recently). Baudoin and Troubs have met two Colombian students who have convinced them that the stories of “ordinary” Colombians are worth recording and sharing. And so they go out and trade portraits for memories – they ask people for their most important memory in return for a drawing of them. If I put “ordinary” in inverted commas before, that’s because the people they interview are really all but ordinary. Each of them has impressive memories, often about the conflict, and many of them are actively involved in trying to work towards peace, even if it’s just in their own immediate environment. Household employees, school teachers, university professors and students, farmers… they all get to tell their stories. One is more intense than the other, and the joint artwork by Baudoin and Troubs is beautiful. Part of El sabor de la tierra‘s appeal is the fact that the conflict stops being abstract. It becomes personal, concrete, and shows many faces, each with its own past, present, hopes, and dreams for the future.
The most striking portrait is that of a young FARC commander though: a young woman, smart, political, who knows what she wants, and who feels the need to use violence to get there. And while reading her story, I absolutely understood why: to her, it seems the only way out in a situation where poverty, corruption, and deprivation have been prevalent and there have been no peaceful means to deal with them. Baudoin and Troubs understand her too, which very much shines through in the book. I felt very conflicted about this part of El sabor de la tierra. I mean, I don’t exactly condone violence, and I was wondering whether Baudoin and Troubs were getting a bit blinded by the commander’s Amazon appeal. But then again, what do I, as a privileged white woman from a first-world background, even know? How would I react in this situation? Would I join a guerrilla group? Or would I just give up and try to adapt rather than fighting for my vision and goals? I have no idea.
El sabor de la tierra made me hungry for more. Actually, this is Baudoin and Troub’s second joint graphic documentary dealing with Latin America; in fact, they met the two students who invited them to Colombia during an earlier project they did in Mexico. It’s about Ciudad Juárez and is called Viva la vida. I really want to read it now, if it’s anywhere near as powerful as El sabor de la tierra, it’s bound to be fantastic. Baudoin also has a solo graphic documentary on Chile (titled Araucaria), which I think is only available in French. But that might just be as good an excuse as any to dust off my French, so that one is going on the reading list too.