It’s easy to think of wars as big events, to think that war is a conflict between two countries, two ideologies, two sects or tribes or simply groups of people. Yes, war is all that. And yet we also know that war is a struggle for individual people. It’s not just soldiers or their families who are affected by war, not just the refugees and those who have lost loved ones. War is a profound event that affects everybody in a society. The three young protagonists of Gipi’s outstanding graphic novel Notes for a War Story are ordinary boys whose lives are affected in profound and surprising ways by the war going on in their native country. Intriguingly, and insightfully, the boys react not so much from the war itself but from the effects of the war. In that way, war becomes a symbol of the boys’ coming of age.
Gipi’s graphic novel tells the story of three young men wandering around an unnamed Baltic nation in the grips of war. Maybe the spookiest element of the book, however, is that the boys don’t ever face the war directly. They never see tanks, or battles, or face an enemy face to face. Instead, the boys deal with the after-effects of war. They starve for lack of food and freeze for lack of warmth. They wander aimlessly from one devastated town to the next. They stay at a former luxury hotel that has its windows shot out. For these three boys, the horror of war is that their lives have been disrupted.
The genius of Gipi’s work on this book is that it focuses on three boys who are coming of age, literally finding their place in the world. In that way, the disloation of the war is symbolic of the dislocation that many adolescents feel in their late teens. The war makes the boys rootless in the same way that ordinary kids feel rootless as they begin to move out of home and find their own way in the world. They play games all about being tough, and inevitably take those games too seriously. At the same time, they don’t take the threat of imminent death from a snper seriously enough. And why should they? They’re young, they’re immortal, on an adventure, making their own way in a brand new world that is profoundly different from the world of their parents.
What the boys find in their travels is that freedom and a lack of responsibility leads to hunger and cold nights. By sheer adolescent bravado, the trio meets the nasty Felix, a war profiteer with an entourage who gives the boys a mission to undertake. The boys are sent to the city, where the streets are paved with gold – or at least concrete – and told to consummate a deal. There, the boys find more adventure than they might have expected, coming much closer to the reality of the war than any of them might have expected.
Gipi does a masterful job of creating the environment with his artwork. His art has a loose yet intense style that perfectly fits the story he presents. The book looks like faded photographs that might have been taken on a cell phone. They have a look that seems like it’s presenting memories, never completely coming into tight focus until the scene shifts to the present day.
In the final chapter of the story, the book moves forward three years to a time in which the war is over and one boy, Guliano, is one of the main interview subjects for a documentary on the war. His complex ambivalence about the war, and his stubborn refusal to answer what he sees as stupid questions, show that Guliano has grown from his experience. He’s no longer an innocent teenager galivanting through the ruins and giggling as he dodges sniper fire. Instead, the war has seeped through his skin and saturated his life with a kind of grim intensity that will likely never go away. He might have avoided dealing with the war directly, but even indirectly, war is a harrowing and profoundly life-altering experience.