translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
Originally published in 1996
New York Review Comics (2016)
A few weeks ago, the new imprint New York Review Comics began its life by publishing Mark Beyer’s Agony. Today the line continues with Edward Gauvin’s translation of Blutch’s 1996 graphic novel about the mystical brutality of ancient Rome, Peplum. I’m not terribly knowledgeable about graphic novels, having to rely on trusted sources to point out which ones are up my street. In this case, that trusted source is Edward Gauvin himself, who always seems to pick strange and interesting translation projects, including two of my favorite books of the last five years, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper (my thoughts here) and Jean Ferry’s The Conductor and Other Tales (my thoughts here). These books combine vast writing skill and playfulness that I find appealing. Other than Gauvin’s statement that Blutch wished to “create a sequel to . . . the Satyricon,” I did not know what to expect when I opened up Peplum. I nevertheless walked forward with confidence . . . what a strange world to walk into.
Peplum takes us back to the beginning of the Roman Empire. In its early pages, a ghoulish looking Julius Caesar is assassinated, and Publius Cimber, a highborn citizen, is exiled and cast out into the mysterious, savage wilderness that fills in the holes between civilization, with a group of lowly, scrounging bandits. Yet these men stumble upon something they cannot quite get their hands on, a woman, or a goddess, encased in ice that does not melt. Such are the spoils of a hard life: a tantalizing, perfect figure, representing something like heaven, and just a slight veil separating it from the men.
The men might not be able to reach the woman, but they can pack around the ice — perhaps when it finally melts the woman will still be alive — and so they start a long journey to who-knows-where. On the trip, mishaps destroy most of the group, and the last standing are Publius Cimber, sickened to the extent we wonder if he can really last the remainder of the novel (he won’t!), and a young man with no name. Betrayal, jealousy, greed, lust, etc. In the first part, the young man murders Cimber and takes on his identity, toting around the ice woman on his own as he seeks some purpose to fill his days waiting for the ice to melt.
This is the story we’ll follow, this young man utilizing the noble name — though it only works to a degree — to get around, all the while toting this effigy, which is not easy to hold on to. For one thing, life in the wilderness surrounding civilization is brutal, and most people don’t care about your name. For another, an ideal can be slippery, especially when something or someone more tangible comes into the picture.
This is where connections to Satyricon come to the fore. The imposter finds tangible love with a beautiful young man, who looks similar to the goddess in the ice. They share hard days and nights together, while the goddess is out of the imposter’s possession. However, given the chance to regain possession of the woman in ice, if only he’ll exchange his “younger brother” for her, what kind of love does he choose? Can he really possess that love? And, regardless, where will his choice ultimately lead him?
Peplum is dark and mysterious in its philosophical art. The narrative is built from Blutch’s magnificent art, a kind of stark, powerful brush stroke that often makes the brutal hallucinations punch you in the face.
It’s a disturbing tale, all the more so because of the narrative and artistic skills of its creator.