Dystopian times breathe new life into the monsters we create

Image enhances wordplay in two revamped classics and a multilingual haiku meditation

Sit and ponder: stone bench at Coole. Photograph: Ron Rosenstock

Sit and ponder: stone bench at Coole. Photograph: Ron Rosenstock


In the wake of the recent American elections, dystopian fiction has seen a surge in popularity, in particular classic titles of the genre,such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, whose vision of a world in which abortion is illegal had uncanny resonance with many of the debates that have dominated the early weeks of Trump’s presidential term.

Having spent my teenage years, reading and rereading the crisis faced by Atwood’s Handmaids and her Unwomen, this month I turned to her poetry for consolation, in particular Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein ($9.99), a collaboration with illustrator Charles Pachter.

When it originally appeared in 1966, in a limited edition of 15 copies, Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein was a celebration of the printed book as artefact. Pachter set the poems on handmade paper using a flatbed letterpress alongside inspired images created using wood- and lino-blocks, silk screens and found objects.

The books have long been coveted items among collectors, achieving a mythic status despite the fact that the poems were made available in pedestrian format in Atwood’s 1968 collection, The Animals in that Country. In response to interest, Canadian publishing company House of Anansi has produced a digital version of the chapbook in which Atwood charts the process of the monster’s creation over 10 terse poems. The ‘Doctor’ of the title, “the universal weaver”, wants to give birth to new life but refuses to credit his creation as a living thing. Faced with the ugly “larval” reality of the monster he has created – “this plateful of results . . . a rubble of tendons, knuckles and raw sinew” – he becomes the “gaunt hunter” of his own creation. However, just as his pursuit of wonder could not be tamed, nor can his monster.

Flashes of skull and teeth

The stark imagery of the poem, which begins in Doctor Frankenstein’s clinical laboratory and ends in the Arctic landscape of ice and snow, contrasts with Pachter’s amoebic images and colour schemes, which have a bloody, foetal aspect to them. Amorphous shapes, with flashes of skull and teeth, they are placed side by side with the text or wrapped around it, engulfing the Doctor’s clinical analysis of his creation.

The juxtaposition of image and text reinforces the essence of Doctor Frankenstein’s true discovery: that monsters are, as Atwood explains in a short introduction, “what we make of them, they mean what we say they mean”. It is a chilling reminder of our own political responsibility in these current times.

As the dissemination of “alternative facts” becomes increasingly widespread in mainstream media, the work of the pioneering fictional cartoon journalist Tintin offers food for thought.

Tintin first appeared in a conservative Belgian newspaper with an anti-communist agenda: his debut adventure took him and his dog Snowy to the Soviet Union to report on Stalin’s radical policies. The comics were an instant success across the French speaking world, and widely translated. Their creator, Hergé, completed 23 more adventures for the journalist hero before retiring him in 1976. His debut, Tintin in the Land of Soviets, however, fell out of print for several decades. Originally drawn in black-and-white (Hergé declined to colour them for republication) the characterisation of the communists in the cartoon made it politically sensitive after the second World War, depending on the political persuasion of the reader of course.

For the first time, it is now possible to read the comic in colour format in an exclusive digital format (£7.99) published by Editions Moulinsart. Studio Hergé have enhanced each frame of the story with nuanced Technicolor on special textured e-paper that creates a rich glossy patina to the pictures and text. However, they have not touched Hergé’s original drawings, which, as the cartoonist admitted, lacked the clarity and nuance of later versions of his characters. This is a boon, in particular, for the digital incarnation. Although you can instruct your e-reader to turn the page for you, you still feel like you are reading a comic rather than watching an animated film.

The portrayal of Russian Bolsheviks may still be politically sensitive, but Donald Trump might want to consider having a look at Tintin’s findings as he continues to court favour with Russia.

Haiku and photography

Emptiness offers another collaboration of text and image in digital form, one that mercifully escapes all political reading. Produced by Long Exposure Press (£4.99), it operates across four languages: English, Irish, Japanese, and the visual language of Ron Rosenstock’s black and white photographs.

Rosenstock’s images are drawn from a portfolio of empty landscapes: the rush of water upon a ring of stones, an uprooted tree, the finger of a ruined castle pointing to the sky. The foreground images are crisp and clear, with the shadow of misted environments in the distance. There is a stillness to them that invites meditation, and Gabriel Rosenstock’s accompanying poems provide philosophical starting points in traditional three-line haiku format.

If the photographs evoke a veil between the known and the unknown, what Ron Rosenstock calls “a doorway beyond perception”, Gabriel Rosenstock’s poems evoke “the things we cannot see, the things we cannot name . . . yet somehow they are there.”

The use of place names in the poems – Sheffrey Wood, Cong, Rossanrubble – brings a particular Irish flavour to their cadence, but Ron Rosenstock captures equally barren sites in Iceland and Maine that draw a similar attention to the “flotsam & jetsam of past lives”. The Irish language and Japanese translations – in particular, their idiosyncratic scripts – add another opportunity for reflection and pause, even when the language itself is as “impenetrable” as the grey skies in the photographs.

Emptiness is the sort of book that is usually produced in an expensive glossy coffee-table format. However, the digital imprint offers an impressive aesthetic substitute, with clear images and no technological embellishment, apart from the satisfyingly crisp sound of a thick stiff page being turned.

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