Beldan Sezen isn’t a name that’s likely to ring a bell – unless you happen to closely follow the European graphic art scene. I came across her in an interest group on a social network some time back where she mentioned she’d recently published her first graphic novel. She was kind enough to send me a copy to review and my only regret is that I took so long to get around to it.
Some graphic novels have a great story that keeps you riveted. These depend largely on the strength of the plot, supported with average artwork, to see them through. Most others have an above-average story that’s supported by rich artwork. Zakkum is one of those few novels that outdo the competition on both counts – a great story with outstanding art that’s told well.
Sezen’s plot is simple enough. Written in the first person, the story opens to a Moslem funeral scene and immediately shifts to our protagonist, a young woman residing in Amsterdam, who receives a parcel. It’s taken a while to get to her because it was addressed to her previous domicile in Vienna. The parcel is from her aunt Hala in Istanbul, who says she’s afraid someone’s trying to kill her. Almost at the same time, the author receives a call informing her that her aunt Hala has passed away.
Suspecting foul play, she immediately sets out for Istanbul. Hala has left her two clues: the first is one half of a torn photograph and the second, a recorded message from her aunt telling of a betrayal by a lover – who she is fearful will retaliate with murder.
The story in itself is simple enough. And I’ll admit that while reading it, I was quite unimpressed with the lack of complexity in the plot… that is till I got to the end. That’s when Sezen kicks the reader in the guts with a finale that rivals The Usual Suspects.
But that’s not what makes the book special.
Remember that Sezen is first an artist, and then, a storyteller. This facet comes out in just about every page… and when you’re reading it, that’s the first thing you’ll notice.
The characters are illustrated with line drawings which are a blend of Calvin & Hobbes and Rutu Modan (Exit Wounds). The backgrounds are brilliant in detail, almost photographic in detail. While Sezen caricaturizes the main characters, the ones in the background (like other pedestrians in a scene) are as detailed as the backgrounds themselves. This difference in art is so stark that it’s almost as if the backgrounds have been done by a different artist altogether.
Sezen’s art style may not be unique, but her style of laying out a story definitely is. For starters, unlike conventional comics, she rarely uses frames to separate her scenes. Instead, she uses elements from her story as separators. For instance, when the protagonist boards a train, the train running horizontally across the page follows immediately, before the next scene shows her lying down on a bunk trying to get to sleep.
As you read, you’ll realize that Sezen draws more than she writes dialogue. In fact, you’ll notice that whenever possible, she’s simply put a drawing of the subject of the conversation in a dialog box. For example, in the funeral scene on the first page, you’ll notice two people conversing about the deceased in the background. It’s done simply by giving them a common dialogue box with a corpse drawn within. Where other novelists would have used a few sentences of dialogue to recount the story so far (in a scene where the protagonist is telling a friend what’s happened), Sezen uses a cycle of images – each representing an incident. What’s more, you won’t find a dialogue box when there is actual conversation happening; in fact, there’s rarely more than one person speaking in a frame.
While Zakkum may be just about 50 pages in length, you’ll be surprised how long it takes you to finish. That’s because Sezen works in black & white, and several details of the plot are in the form of graphics – so you’ll have to look closely. Initially, it may be difficult, but the book challenges you to not just read, but ‘study’ each page as a graphic narrative.
Sezen’s storytelling, like her art, is subtle but sharp. It’s crisp and to the point. However, there are parts when, as a Reader, you’ll feel a slight disconnect in the flow. This is until you think about what the narrator’s done and realize what the next logical step should be. Zakkum expects you to do that. While it’s sometimes fun, it does make it harder to read. What Sezen should have done, is added a few frames that explain the chain of thought. But… it’s her first attempt at a novel, so I wouldn’t put too fine a point on it.
The other problem is one of language. The narrator is multi-lingual and the story takes place in Istanbul. The primary language is Turkish, and the nuances of language play a large role in storytelling. Zakkum, I feel, is a story best told in Turkish – especially because of the climax. When you get to the end of it, look at the story as a concept, and you’ll appreciate the intellect and irony behind it.
The title declares Zakkum to be a graphic murder mystery, but follow the story and you’ll see that the mystery is simply a clever ploy that the author is using to reveal layers of hypocrisy in an otherwise conservative society – from extramarital affairs to illegitimate children to homosexuality.
When you’re reading Zakkum, remember that you’re reading a translation. And as such, there’s a certain ‘loss in translation’ that you’ve to account for. That apart, Zakkum is one of the finest indie novels I’ve read in a long time, and I certainly hope Sezen has another book in the works.