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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
See the publisher's preview page
See the French edition
This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001