Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Authors on Artists: Brian Oliu on The Auca & The Cartoons of Catalunya

The Auca & The Cartoons of Catalunya

by Brian Oliu 

They were different: the lines a little bit more jagged, a little less polished. It was a building with scaffolding—the curves of ears and the coloring in of trees that I am not used to; stubby shrubs, bushy and pale. The language, of course, was different as well—diacritic marks, though I did not call them that: squiggles, lines, things that appeared to be misprints, smudges, mismarks with a sharp pencil.

These are the drawings of my childhood: my aunts who lived in Barcelona would send countless picture books overseas—they were odd, not just in their language, their Ts next to Xs in a way that looked unabashedly, well, foreign, but in their feel—hyper glossy prints, slick, even, in their touch.

I could not read them, as I had no knowledge of Catalan beyond “Avi,” (grandfather), & tieta (aunt), & even then I don’t think I would’ve recognized those as words in a different languages: Avi was Avi, just as Tieta Carmen was Tieta Carmen—they were not placeholders for things, they just were. So, instead, I looked at the drawings and tried to ascertain what was happening: there were children, and there were families, there were oranges, and shepherds, and dragons, all things magical—the skylines looked that much more majestic and inviting because they were imperfect. These were drawings that I could make if I tried really hard, if my fingers grew slimmer as I got older—the watercolors splashing in and out of lines, the dog’s eyes represented by two black dots.

There’s something childlike about the culture of Catalunya: once we get past the seriousness of Mirò and the starkness of Gaudí there is playfulness. This is a region that is famous for castells—the stacking of people into large pyramids in townsquares, which seems like something from mythmaking: that there is a lesson to be learned here; that a tower made of people will eventually fall. We remember summer camps where we climb each other to take photographs, the lightest girl scaling to the top & holding up a peace sign before the flash goes off & we all tumble.

And so, comics. And so, children’s illustrations. This is how stories are told: it is not enough to simply tell folks, it must be shown, drawn. The drawings are never perfect—they are not like our American comic books, all flash and style. They are much more rudimentary. The stories are often humble as well: one of the primary forms of historical accounts in Catalunya is the auca: a genre of a story in pictures.

The auca is how I learned origin: Cantonigròs, the village that my grandfather was born in, has an auca that is on the wall of my great-aunt’s summer home. There are drawings of the mountains in the distance. There are silhouettes of farmers, clergymen. I have a child’s knowledge of the history: the gist is there and it is clear, yet any semblance of nuance is lost in the language.

More important than that, the auca is how I first learned the story of my grandfather, as his history was displayed in the television room of my grandparents’ house. It is here I learned that he went to school in Barcelona, through the amateur sketches of Casa Milà—it is where I understood the drawings and the story behind it all because it meant something: here was my grandfather, a great man, I had always been told, & here was proof—in crude sketches of petroleum in beakers, of lines meant to signify motion coming off of an airplane wing, of him running, always running; the small loops meant to represent sweat, to represent effort. I would point & ask for a translation, but by that point the stories had become lore: of leaving Spain & coming to America, of returning, of coming & going in a flash; in as long as it took to start a new panel.

My grandfather wrote a book in Catalan on running; he founded the Barcelona Marathon in the early 80s & was known as a runner during a time where it was still very much in its early stages as a sport. I am trying my best to translate it all, despite not knowing the words beyond the occasional noun, the various conjugations of córrer. The book itself has illustrations; mostly pen and ink drawings in hyper-realist ways, hard lines and shadow. & yet when it comes time to learn a new language, we focus on images—of cartoons of apples & libraries & pools & the words spilling out from underneath them, with their diacritic marks and their vowels doubled up in the strangest of places. We are not told the word in English because it is not important. What is important is that we know where we are going and where we are from, despite not having the words for it.


Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Mojo, Drunken Boat, & MonkeyBicycle.