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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain

written and illus. by Peter Sís

Thirty sentences, give or take the odd ellipsis, form the armature upon which Sís recontructs his early growth as an artist, and a few dozen journal entries add a lean layer of flesh to the tale. The real substance of this inventively fashioned autobiography, however, lies in the images—some tidily sequential, others boldly sprawling double bleeds—that trace Sís’ creative journey from a toddler compelled to doodle to a young professional compelled to leave his native Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s for liberty in the West. And if readers just happen to find themselves inadvertently expanding their knowledge of the Cold War, that makes their own literary journey all the richer.

Baby Peter, paper and pencil in hand and head turned to an impossible rotation, glances over his shoulder in the opening scene to fix his audience with skyblue eyes of astonishing clarity and near magnetic force (the text reads, “As long as he could remember, he had loved to draw”). Boxing in the baby are three additional lines of fine-print text defining the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, and Communism, the intangible entities that will form a restrictive perimeter around his life over the coming thirty-some years. In the following pages, a series of small scenes finely textured in black ink introduce us to a happy little kid who’s free to draw anything he likes in his own home, safe in the care of his obviously loving parents. A splash of Communist red infiltrates each frame, though, usually in the guise of a flag or a ubiquitous star, and by the time Sís leaves the nest and has to draw “what he is told to at school,” flashes of red have made their way into Young Pioneers neckerchiefs, hammer and sickle paintings on the classroom easels, missiles sprouting from a map of Cuba, bloodstains pocking the dying John Kennedy slumped in his Dallas limo. There’s no escaping the pervasive influence of global political drama, and in this “time of brainwashing,” an enormous red cloud bearing a host of Russian leaders tails the young boy as he walks down Prague’s cobbled streets.

The first of three sets of journal entries closes out this segment, presenting Sís’ own youthful take on events (“The Soviet Union launched a rocket carrying a little dog named Laika into space. I wonder how the dog is going to land?”), and offering clues to readers on the content of several of the scenes they had just witnessed. A turn of the page brings an unexpected smattering of fresh hues as Sís begins to question the party line and, under the relatively liberal leadership of Alexander Dubcek, the Prague Spring of 1968 explodes with the music of the Beatles, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones. Now the preponderantly black-and-white images are sprinkled with colorful bits of Sís’ own work—roiling in the air above the apartment building, painted on a drum set, fastened to the wall—and a tiny monochromatic Sís cavorts through a fantasy panorama of players and symbols of the contemporary popular arts. Again a set of journal entries adds Sís’ personal commentary, and another page turn ushers in the grim crackdown of Soviet occupation as tanks roll into Prague and Sís’ world reverts to black, white, and red. Slowly, pockets of livelier color reemerge, evoking the rebellious spirit of muralists who wage a battle of wits and paint with the government, and in Sís’ paintings, which are attracting official censure. In the concluding segment, Sís dreams of escape, clutching his pictures under his arm as he bicycles through an imaginary landscape of wild plans to cross the Iron Curtain and finally taking flight across the Wall on the wings of his own artwork.

Snippets of italicized commentary run along the sides of most pages, providing historical context in a timely and unobtrusive fashion (“June 17, 1969. The Prague [Beach Boys] concert takes place in Lucerna Hall. Police with dogs wait nearby”), and an afterword recaps thhe benchmarks of Sís’ early years and offers a bit more detail on how he came to reside in the United States. Nonetheless, it is Sís’ visual rendering that will both engross and haunt his audience—from the cutaways of clandestine activity behind walls that dutifully fly the red flag, to the pig-faced policemen and government spies that lurk throughout the scenes in an insidious, high-stakes game of Where’s Waldo? Student writers and artists who have butted heads with fidgety administrators—or any kids who are awakening to their First Amendment rights—can look right here for inspiration.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

 

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Peter Sís from The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain ©2007. Used by permission of Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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This page was last updated on October 1, 2007.

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