Stefan Mesch on "The salty river" The carefully drawn lines demarcating oneself
"Have you felt grains of salt when turning the pages of a book and reading?" Kirsten asks me: "Jan Bauer adds salt to the graphic novel before wrapping it up and sending it off."
Kirsten lives in Hamburg. She knows how much I like discovering graphic novels, and in 2014, she sends me the first book authored by a Hamburg acquaintance. “The Salty River” is a clever and warm-hearted graphic novel, a travelogue about self-discovery and a journey through Australia that the author and illustrator Jan Bauer undertook in 2012 following the death of his mother due to cancer.
A book that I particularly like to send to people who have little experience of graphic novels. Over 234 pages, Bauer shows (often using the simplest of methods) how sequential art is used in the graphic novel to narrate a story: with a little bit of humour, plenty of subtle psychology …….and no vanity.
The biggest issue, point of attack is the setting: backpacking boys help themselves to the world, yet grasp cultures, landscapes, nations often only as a photo wallpaper, a setting for one’s inner space, and engage in self-centred talk about ‘the aborigines’ or ‘the’ Australian mentality. “The Salty River" manages to avoid all attributes, accusations of racism and ignorance because, on the very first pages, Jan Bauer makes it clear that his focus is solitude, peace and quiet, the inner self. This is an ego trip to help him cope with the loss of his mother and the end of a 16-year relationship. What defines Australia as a nation, its inhabitants, the cultural space – none of this is addressed.
"Outside here," says Bauer while walking along a dry river bed, having started in Alice Springs, ‘the immediacy of life is stronger. The carefully drawn lines demarcating oneself are no longer drawn afresh and gradually dissolve.’ As a mere text, this thought would sound pretty bland, banal, in Bruch Chatwin’s “The Songlines” or in other classics about Australia. But the illustration convinces: the character of Jan Bauer (button eyes, shaven head, an endearingly simple ordinary man in the style of Tintin) is plagued by mosquitoes while walking – until he inserts blades of grass between hat and bald head that then bob and sway in front of his face when he walks, like the spokes of a wheel or like bars.
To show how the ‘carefully drawn lines demarcating oneself dissolve’, Bauer erases the outline of his figure: what remains is only the hat, the blades of grass, a pair of sunglasses and the backpack, hovering in the air, as though Bauer were invisible. A physical feeling that I have taken almost 140 words to describe – but for which Bauer needs nothing more than a couple of (missing) strokes and two sentences. Graphic novels can do this!
“The Salty River” becomes gripping and is emotionally charged when Jan meets Morgane at a campsite and watering hole. A French woman, 12 years younger than him and also travelling alone. Will he give up the quiet, the solitude, to handle a person, her edges, contours and expectations? Will this dampen the trip? Is this the start of a romance? The great love?
When I read "The Salty River” in 2014, I was sure: 5 out of 5 stars. And despite the simply drawn faces and the uncomplicated scene and picture sequences: a bold piece of autofiction! Because 'Jan Bauer', the character, is a pedantic idiot. He wants to use black ink to paint the barren landscapes and before his departure, writes a letter to the ink company. He will not be able to refill water for long stretches, in nature: Is it safe to drink water blackened by cleaning brushes?
The drawings that explain and give us an indication of the contents of the backpack, of the hiking route and of the wide-ranging, often joyless logistics are similarly neurotic, cheerless, oppressive for me: At which campsite should I sleep? Which provisions should I set aside for myself? How can Morgane travel without a comb, and pack just one pair of panties? Jan has four underpants, a pot scourer, condoms! There is little room for ‘freedom’ in Jan’s tight schedule.
When re-reading the book in 2019, in the wake of #metoo, “The Salty River” comes much closer: what I found dreamy, neurotic about the character of Jan in 2014 now often seems calculated, intimate. Morgane seems to be far less interested in a romance than Jan, but with a great deal of begging, showing off, humming and hawing, and ‘look how sad I am when you reject me’, it takes the 35-year-old six days to worm his way into the confidence of the often visibly irritated, impatient woman. Bauer displays closeness, romanticism, playfulness. Yet there are always scenes in which Jan watches Morgane like some kind of animal that he lures, and once it is close to him, he can rest assured that he is trustworthy. A ‘nice guy’ who revolves around himself.
I am amazed by how atmospheric and colourful the black-and-white graphic novel can be; how effortlessly I also think about the mood created by the colours on the cover when reading the black pictures inside. And I love the fact than Bauer, today a lecturer for character design at the Hamburg College of Design, has imbibed an important lesson from Tintin: the characters here, with which all of us should empathize, have simple, open faces. But the background is full of texture, details: precise and naturalistic.
For me, the fact that "The Salty River”, along with milestones, equipment lists, detail-rich settings and information about places, even has a small digital photograph of a woman of whom I have no reason to believe that she is not called Morgane, and that what happens between Jan-the-character and Morgane-the-character is not exactly the way it happens between two real people, one of who allows himself to record, illustrate, and stylise it all, is what makes the laidback, woeful and penetrating nature of Jan-the-character one of the greatest, boldest achievements of Jan-Bauer-the-artist.
A thrilling book that shows (or questions) backpacking as a panorama of self-discovery. And in the struggle for Morgane, shows and questions how even the simplest diary and documentary style is self-stylisation. Imagining oneself, imagining others, repainting oneself. Jan Bauer himself says: "No auto fiction, no fictional parts. Everything happened exactly like this."
Whew! How verbose that sounds as text!
When illustrated by Jan Bauer, one sees more. (And: thanks for adding salt! Is it safe to eat the grains? Can one please send me a letter with information about the brand of salt?)
Jan Bauer: The Salty River, Publisher: Twelve Panels Press, RRP: $30, ISBN: 9780980593723