Do they explain, or do they simply exist to confuse? Rashmi looks at what illustrations have always meant to her before decoding Souza’s illustrations.
The other day, I stumbled upon a book with illustrations by F.N. Souza. The book is Polish writer Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s “Inner Circle”, first published in 1966, which featured in an earlier auction of Saffronart. Peterkiewicz had migrated to England in 1940, and had won acclaim for his previous novels. To summarise “Inner Circle”, it’s a triptych. Each of the stories unravels in an alternate past, present and future. An obit to Peterkiewicz in the Guardian describes the book as “…a futuristic vision of a hopelessly overcrowded Britain, without greenery”: this comes across quite vividly in Book One (the first part). It’s a hard book to categorise, with elements of magic realism blending with sci-fi and dystopia. And it’s hard to follow. I enjoy books that come across as cryptic—it gives me a reason to go back to them. But perhaps some of us crave clarity and linearity. When in doubt, I turn to illustrations.
Except that Souza isn’t exactly the kind of artist I’d imagine making book illustrations. Perhaps it’s owing to my partiality to delicately-made illustrations I’d find in children’s books, or accompanying folktales. And take the word “illustrate”—to shed light on, to illuminate. If Souza’s works are layered with meaning, how would his illustrations shed light on the story, especially for readers not familiar with the artist?
Before getting into this, I’ll admit I approach illustrations with a naive expectation from them. If you ask me to name an illustrated book that stands out distinctly in my head, it would have to be one with intricately detailed and impossibly delicate illustrations. Alan Lee’s illustrations for a Harper Collins edition of the Lord of the Rings surface immediately. I’m tempted to use the cliché “bring to life”, but Tolkien’s world is already replete with vivid descriptions of places, characters and scenes. What would be the role of Lee’s illustrations? Do they enhance Tolkien’s writing? Do they offer an interpretation of his writing through the mind of an artist? Does that, in turn, offer readers a filtered richness of Tolkien’s world? Illustrations are a reinterpretation in that sense: a simplification. Lee’s illustrations, through an astonishing delicacy of line and inherent luminosity, funnel the visual vibrance of the book—an added pleasure for the reader.
But hey, I’m not entirely partial to sophisticated renderings. In contrast to Lee’s drawings, Tim Burton’s illustrations for his (incredibly witty) book of poems, “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy”, come to mind. When I first picked up the book a few years ago, I found the hastily-etched, flat, pastel-shade drawings “cute”, and to my taste. When I finished reading the book and observed the sketches a second time, I realised how layered the poems actually were. Burton’s drawings were definitely not a “re-interpretation”; nor were they meant to guide the reader. The poems have been acknowledged to be darkly humourous and macabre—not in the sense of uneasy, horror-inducing macabre, but a more playful macabre. And here’s where the accompanying drawings add a subtle, barely palpable unsettlement—as if made by an angry child.
Before I return to Souza’s illustrations for “Inner Circle”, a few thoughts on Peterkiewicz’s book. It is obviously targeted at a mature reader, not just in content, but also in construction and characterisation. The plot unravels little by little, quite treacherously as well. The characters names and dialogues serve as cues for the reader. Here’s one from Dover, the protagonist in Book One:
“Not that we went much by names. My second wife, for instance, was September. There were thousands of Septembers whirling about in this area between the Kent coast and the dried-up marshes of London. And the month of September apparently kept returning each year, though as a rule we didn’t bother about seasons and the months that were supposed to belong to them.”
Trapped under a giant dome on an overcrowded, barren island, clinging in a cluster to a “hygiene box”, the allusion to his wife suddenly becomes metaphorical. At one point, he tells her “Remember, remember, your month is September”—an oblique reference to Guy Fawkes’ Day (remember, remember, the 5th of November); this is a future built upon the remnants of an England that once was. Being his wife, September—the month—is attached to him. “Time” is attached to him. He is only vaguely aware that seasons change; this hints that his perception of time is muddled by more urgent requirements.
Point being: How does one grasp the abstract allusions and unfolding plot? I expected Souza’s drawings to provide clarity. They did nothing of the sort–or so I thought. It took me a while to realise I was wrong. He was primarily a figurative artist (take a look at the sketches). The same corrosive scepticism with which he’d render his disfigured, pock-marked subjects announces itself here. He’s given form to most of the physical descriptions and literal meanings in his signature style, but when I thought about it, their insecurities, their ignorance, their fears come to the fore. If Souza’s art is a comment on the hypocrisy of society, these drawings expose the flaws in Peterkiewicz’s characters. They’re vulnerable through his sketches, and this is something I missed in my initial reading.
Souza’s drawings go beyond filtering the story or adding another dimension to it. They co-exist, but they’re also independent. The drawings boldly churn out character nuances and mould them in twenty-seven pages. What I did end up finally seeing was very different from what I’d initially pictured in my head.
It’s interesting to consider the accompanying catalogue note from the Saffronart auction for the book:
“This narrative of ‘Inner Circle’, which navigates the past, present and future, seems to draw parallels with the seamless comingling of reality and fantasy in Souza’s art. It may have been for this reason, perhaps, that Souza agreed to design the jacket for this volume, and also to contribute twenty-seven drawings relating to the text, including an illustration of the author’s dedication on the last page.”
Peterkiewicz’s style may have fitted well with Souza’s idiom. What would you make of these illustrations?