I was very excited when Suniti lent me her copy of The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. In fact it was around Hansa's birthday, and I wanted to rush out and get her a copy because she'd seen it somewhere and admired the drawings. Also because it seemed quite interesting to begin with. The bookstore didn't have it when I checked. And thank god for that. Because cross the first 20 pages, and the book loses its act completely.
The story is a retelling of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Here he lives in Calcutta of the 1700s as Abravanel Ben Obadiah Ben Aharon Kabariti. He records all the scandals of contemporary Cal - especially those of the British administrators - in a book called The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. Pablo, our hero, wants to find the copy that his grandfather had picked up once in Paris. At his grandfather's death, the book was given away, and Pablo sets about looking for it in Calcutta. He meets many people in the process and this story is a little about each of them. Interesting premise, interesting beginning, but somehow, it doesn't come together at all. And it goes on for a massive 280 pages.
The problem with The Barn Owl..., I think, is something that is common to many urban Indian writers (and here I count myself in too). We have, I feel, a multiplicity of stimuli, and we want to bring it all in. Unlike people who live in sanitized societies, living in India offers you so much everyday madness to play with, that you can't bear to leave anything out. And I suspect the temptation to do so is higher in a form like the graphic novel, since it's so visual and thrives on the kitschy, the slightly batty.
In The Barn Owl... it feels as if every thing that has ever struck Banerjee as odd or delightfully eccentric about Calcutta is brought in - irrespective of its role in the larger narrative. Yes, cities have their incredibly fascinating idiosyncrasies, but does it all have to come together, like, right now?
After a point, each vignette is treated in the same way. New characters are introduced and described and located every 5 or 6 pages, and then the story carries on to another character. You feel like there's going to be a crackling crescendo at the end, but there's just a whisper of drama there. In fact, hardly any at all.
It's all very wry and ironic, but finally, it simply doesn't pull together and become that convincing story.
About the visuals: opinion in this family is divided. Banerjee, though inventive and well-schooled in the storyboard-like delineation of a graphic novel, is not a skilled artist. His drawing is honestly a bit amateurish. Amit, as an artist and illustrator, can't tolerate bad drawing in a graphic novel, because well, you wouldn't put up with bad writing in a prose novel, would you? I see his point. But initially, I was like, ok, so it's not great drawing, but I'm all for democracy in these matters. Like, I loved the mixing of old photos of Cal with illustrations. And I admired the cinematic feel in general.
In a graphic novel, I can look at the drawings as being a part of the narrative and therefore not to be considered separately (unless of course the illustrator is so good that the work becomes art!). The bigger deal for me is the story. So long as the visual style merges with the story-telling, or at least, so long as the visuals tell the story well, it's ok with me.
At the end of The Barn Owl... though, I felt massively irritated because the story hadn't worked and neither had the art. It just seemed so self-indulgent and vapid. Amit has seen reviews of Kashmir Pending, a graphic novel published by Banerjee and he says it's a whole lot better than this one - at least in terms of skill. I certainly hope so.