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BrüselReview - Brüsel
Cities of the Fantastic
by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten
NBM Publishing, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

Those readers who have ever browsed through French or Belgian book stores will know that the French-speaking world has a passion for graphic novels and comic books. While in north America it is mostly teenagers and overgrown teenagers who collect such work, in France and Belgium they are to be found on the shelves of most households. Book stores have whole sections devoted to these graphic creations, and browsing through them makes me feel that the Anglo-speaking world is missing out on something. Of course, we have graphic novels in the English speaking world, but they are mostly from a different set of traditions of superheroes, gothic adventure, bawdy romps, or counter culture comedy.

But NBM Books has been bringing over and translating some books from Europe for US consumers, some of which have been reviewed on this site. (Remembrance of Things Past, Vol 1: Combray, The Blue Notebook). They have also been publishing the series "Cities of the Fantastic," by Schuiten & Peeters. This most recent book in the series, Brüsel, was first published in 1992. It gives some sense of the imaginative power and fantastic art that are common in the French-speaking world of graphic novels. It's am impressive work.

The basic plot of the book is that the city planners of Brüsel aim to make it the most modern, futuristic city in the world. This means knocking down many of the old parts of town, and so there are protesters fighting against these plans. It soon transpires that the planners and builders who will profit from these plans are corrupt and have no respect for the people of the city. The central figure in the plot is Mr. Abeels, who runs a flower shop. He has renovated the shop and is getting ready to open, now selling only plastic flowers, which have the great advantage of never dying. His great idea attracts the attention of one of the visionary scientists who works with the city planners, Professor Dersenval. Dersenval befriends Abeels, who has a terrible cough, and is worried that he might have TB. Through this friendship, Abeels gets to see the latest inventions, the political intrigues behind the closed doors of the city planners, and the monstrous egos that drives these powerful men.

The plot doesn't stand up to much scrutiny -- it's no more than a device with which the writers give them a way to set out their more abstract ideas. The characterization is thin. Even the themes are pretty standard: the corruption of the rich and their exploitation of the poor, the fascination of modern science, medicine's readiness to rely on untested new methods, and of course, a love story. It shares idea with Brave New World and The Road to Wellville, and probably has some debt to H.G. Wells. Really the book's strength is its art, especially of the city and the gleaming new technology, but also the interiors of old buildings. It's set in a futuristic version of the early twentieth century, which makes it especially unusual and visually arresting. The drawing is very detailed, and the images are powerful, using well chosen points of view and lighting. If this were a movie, the cinematographer should get an Oscar.

This isn't a novel with great psychological insight, although it does nicely capture the excitement of new technology and the readiness of those who will profit from it to be blind to the problems that the technology generates. But the story has a moral that can be applied to any new technology, including those used in psychiatry, such as brain surgery, electroshock treatment, or psychotropic drugs. These discoveries and inventions can be wonderful, but if used rashly and without due caution, Brüsel reminds us that they can, so to speak, leave a city in ruins.

© 2001 Christian Perring

Links:

See the publisher's preview page

See the French edition

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001


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