This is the story of footnotes to a sideshow of a forgotten war. The war pitted Egypt against the strange alliance of Britain, France and Israel in 1956; the sideshow was the ongoing raids across the Gaza border by Palestinian guerillas and Israeli forces; and the footnotes–well, like most footnotes, they dropped to the bottom of history pages, where they barely hold on. History can do without its footnotes. Footnotes are inessential at best; at worst, they trip up the greater narrative. From time to time, more streamlined editions appear, history shakes off some footnotes altogether. And you can see why . . . History has its hands full. It can’t help producing pages by the hour, by the minute. History chokes on fresh episodes and swallows whatever old ones it can. The war of 1956? Hunh? (Footnotes in Gaza, 8-9)
Sometimes a reviewer encounters works that are just extremely complicated–which is the case with Joe Sacco’s astonishing new book Footnotes in Gaza.
Let’s start with the easy part. This book is a gorgeously presented work of subjective graphical reporting that centers around a massacre committed by Israeli solders in 1956 in Rafah, a squalid town in the Gaza Strip.
Sounds straightforward enough, right? However, the simplistic view is incomplete when reading this book; straightforward explanations break down. Sacco creates a complex and heady work that continually jolts and surprises with its complex twists and turns.
The book is not just about the ’56 massacre; Sacco’s narrative in this book intertwines inexorably with life in Rafah today. It’s the story of those who remember the massacre, of the life that they have lived in the 50 years subsequent to the event.
This book is also the story of Sacco–an American graphic journalist traveling under a Maltese passport–as he retraces his experiences in the area and searches for the truth of that horrific incident.
However, the search for truth in the events of 1956 is difficult and complicated.
Little was written of this incident when it happened, so Sacco is depending on the memories of emotionally scarred men and women–-many of whom were children at the time–to describe events that happened some 50 years earlier. Thus, this book is also about the fleeting chimera of memory–about the subjectivity of truth and, ultimately, about the incredible complexity of building a truthful chronicle of any events.
I found myself enthralled by the subjectivity of the story. Throughout the book, Sacco makes comments like, “This is the part of the story that wobbles and strains” (page 298). History “wobbles and strains?”
Didn’t we all learn in high school that history is fixed and comprehensible–that facts are facts, and the truth behind those facts is immutable?
Sacco’s book achieves a sort of novelistic power from the use of subjective history. Much of the reader’s mind can be devoted to trying to separate out the important objective facts from the wobbly subjective assertions.
Another way we see the subjectivity of truth in this book is in Sacco’ss conversation with a former member of the Fedayeen, of whom Sacco says:
I visit him four times over the months and each time he runs me ragged between ’48 and ’67, because he’s seen it all and can tell me everything, but I don’t want all and everything. I want the mid-’50s! The mid-’50s! (42)
This interaction adds another element of subjectivity to Sacco’s presentation of history, as the Fedayeen member gives readers a sense that Sacco is either being “spun” to believe a specific viewpoint or that history can become muddled in a man’s mind in light of other experiences that he has had. Subjective history comes in many different types; the former Fedayeen present a different type of subjective history.
The most intriguing and stunning examples of the subjectivity history in the book are the alternating viewpoints of a key scene in a schoolyard that is presented through the memories of a dozen different men in which a crucial announcement over a loudspeaker is remembered differently (205). This announcement began one of the worst days of these peoples’ lives, but they all remember it in slight variations. It’s spellbinding to read Sacco’s verbatim presentation of the men’s memories and see the discrepancies between them.
A similar thing happens when an officer reports to the massacre site–people remember the man who may have saved their lives in very different ways from one another (301). It’s fascinating to read the variant descriptions, but it is not quite a Rashamon interpretation of history in which every person who participates in an event has a completely different memory of the event.
Sacco’s presentation of these variant views is more an example of what William Faulkner describes in a 1958 interview about his great novel Absalom, Absalom!:
I think that no one individual can look at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and you see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it–but taken all together, the truth is in what they saw though nobody saw the truth intact.
There’s a feeling of a tapestry of truth being woven by Sacco from all the disparate strands of the stories of these Gazans, but the tapestry is constantly in danger of falling apart.
The stories veer and wriggle around each other. Sometimes brothers even disagree about when a family member was killed and where he was laid to rest. The horror of the events described may be too horrible, too blinding, to be able to be remembered clearly. The mind resists dwelling on the worst aspects of mankind because it simply can’t handle the pain of the moments.
It’s this exploration of the subjectivity of memory that makes this book really special to me. I found myself thoroughly fascinated with the way that Sacco presents the truth as a fluid event veering wildly in peoples’ minds.
All the people who were able to speak about the massacre of ’56 have to have been at least 60 years old at the time that Sacco interviewed them, and these people have lived through many more major events in their lives since that time. How can their memories be expected to be completely clear?
Over the intervening years, these people have discussed these events over and over again with friends and family, and this sharing inevitably leads to an overlaying of perceptions among the storytellers. It’s difficult to discern the objective truth of an event like the massacre because human memory is so frail.
That said, the outline of the truth is clear. There was a massacre in a schoolyard in 1956 in which many men were killed–so, while I found myself fascinated by the way that Sacco presents memories, I was also continually reminded that the broad stroke of events presented in the book actually did happen. Sacco then juxtaposes another level onto the story of the 1956 massacre.
As a journalist embedded in the Gaza Strip, he experienced many of the longtime difficulties and complexities of life in that region that continue to this day–and the book doesn’t shrink from presenting the events that Sacco lived through. We see him experience gunfire, the destruction of houses, many ordinary deaths, and terrible hardships.
In presenting the rough and complicated life of the people in Gaza, Sacco gives the readers a foundation from which to view the events of 1956. We can appreciate the town of Rafah more because Sacco juxtaposes life in 1956 next to life in 2006–often literally.
There are several pages in which Sacco presents an image of Rafah in 1956 on the left page with an images of Rafah in 2006 on the right page. These literal juxtapositions help to weave the past and present together in ways that give the story an interesting sense of continuity.
There has been some chatter on the Internet about how this book is not objective; how it tells only the story of
the residents of Gaza while leaving the Israeli soldiers faceless and nameless–and this criticism is accurate. Readers go with Sacco into the houses of hundreds of Gazans in this book. We get to know and see these men, their wives, and their families.
The Gazans are humanized as we learn their histories, discover their dreams, and see their relationships. However, the same is not true of the Israelis–especially in the scenes of the massacre. For the most part, the Israeli soldiers are literally faceless–often drawn from behind, and usually seen as only taking violent actions.
There is one page, though, in which we do see the faces of the Israeli soldiers directly, and it’s a breathtaking and surprising experience (234). Yet, overall, the division between the Gazans and the Israelis is precisely the point of this book.
Sacco doesn’t pretend to be objective in his book. It is clearly intended to follow the Gazans’ side as the massacre is retold. To have chronicled the story of the Israelis would have ballooned this already very large book (nearly 400 pages) to an unmanageable size–and the book already took Sacco four years to draw.
More importantly, the criticism about the book’s lack of objectivity misses the point about the subjectivity and difficulty of memory. Footnotes in Gaza is biased precisely because it was written by a journalist embedded in one side of the conflict. There was no way Sacco could have gotten to know the Israelis, or seen their side of the story, when his specific plan was to spend time with the Gazans.
Furthermore, it’s debatable whether the Israelis actually are treated unfairly in the book. For instance, Sacco presents and discusses with empathy a speech made by Israel’s warrior hero Moshe Dayan. He praises Dayan’s words and then explains Israel’s complicated reasons for its actions in light of the complex Suez Canal Crisis (76-78).
While those pages don’t balance the portrayals of the Israelis from the Gazans’ standpoint, they do stand out as being objective and thoughtful. In fact, they are some of the few incidents in the book that are presented as absolute, incontrovertible facts.
This tremendous complexity–with ambiguity and certainty living so uneasily next to each other–makes for fascinating reading. Sacco may call himself a comics journalist, but what he reports puts the whole idea of objective truth up for questioning. Like a master cartoonist, Sacco uses both his text and his art to explore this central concept–and Sacco’s art in the comic is breathtaking.
His command of the page is wonderful–the sign of a highly experienced cartoonist at the top of his craft. He brings Rafah to life in the reader’s hands. We get a sense of the buildings and streets, and of the pace of everyday life in the town. In long shot vistas of the village, we see people doing their daily tasks, and we get to watch the way they live with the daily chaos and horrors they encounter.
Sacco has shed much of the business-for-its own sake that characterized some of his earlier work while keeping much of its energy. He no longer delivers his panels in a helter-skelter manner across the page. That previous style drew attention to itself and its flashiness, and it would have been inappropriate for a piece as intense as Footnotes in Gaza. Instead, the squared-off panels provide a drumbeat of drama and a sense of rhythm that perfectly captures the essential sense of time passing.
The book concludes with Sacco looking back on his experiences and feeling ambiguous about the way in which his work presents the horrific fates that the Gazans met. In the final pages, he seems to express regret that the subjectivity of the Gazans’ stories may have trumped the objective horrors that they lived through.
Faulkner discusses the subjective/objective dilemma thusly:
It was . . . thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird–but the truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird which I would like to think is the truth.
Sacco expresses regret that his book may have distanced the reader from what Faulkner would express as truth. It’s a fitting end to an extraordinary book–giving readers one last touch of uncertainty and intense emotionalism brings to a close this ambiguous and intense work of art.