Egypt, Country of Clay

Posted by on March 2nd, 2011 at 1:37 AM

City of Clay by dutch artist and writer Milan Hulsing has received some press by being published at the same time as the Egyptian revolution against – now luckily former – president Mubarak started. City of Clay does play against a background of revolution and discontent but that is where the comparison ends. The actual uprising is only a minor beat in the story but that doesn’t stop the press from making comparisons and seeing parallels into the most detailed of minutiae.

Milan Hulsing has been living in Cairo for years, waiting for an opportunity to condense his gathered experiences into a story. With the graphic novelisation of Egyptian avant garde writer Mohamed el Bisaties novel Al-Khaldiya, he has found the perfect outlet to canalise his exposure to the Egyptian way of living.

In an undisclosed time frame, Egyptian civil servant Salem brews up a plan to create a fictional city near the Nile in order to collect the incomes of the local police outfit. In order to keep the lie consistent, he finds himself buried evermore in the fictional happenings of Khaldiya. While producing and endless stream of fines and terrorist threats, the old part of the city comes ever closer to a revolution against the repressive polit bureau and Salem finds himself more and more under strain while events in Khaldiya seem to influence his own hold on reality.

City of Clay is definitely a graphic novel that demands re-readings and a closer look at the proceedings. While a first read can lead one astray by classifying it as a magical realist story thereby dismissing the more absurd scenes as pure fantasy, a second look actually brings the psychological aspects of the story to the front. Protagonist Salem’s own background is already soured from the start; obviously a loner in an isolated life, shunned by his colleagues, he is also confronted with a runaway wife with a son under the guise of there being no decent schools in the town they lived in.

Salem’s alter ego in the fictional city is represented by the police commissioner, a Clint Eastwood version of the large and slim Salem.  The police officer is a brutal man who looks down on women and whose sole purpose in life is to maintain control by trying to control everything. His relationship with his wife is one of misogamy and terror. While seeming to be solely an imaginative power fantasy of Salem, a tip of the veil is lifted by Salem having the commissioner undergo the same experience with his wife as Salem had. Under the guise of closing the schools, Salem is able to re-purpose the freed up money into the local police apparatus but at the price of the commissioner losing his wife and son who abandon this cruel man. While seeming to be a cathartic exorcising, it is actually a representation of Salem abandoning touch with reality, retreating into the spiral of events that lead to his emotional breakdown and the eventual tragic ending. The police commissioner is Salem’s abyss. He is what the protagonist sees when he looks into his own soul, reflecting his experiences when he realises what sort of man he has become. The commissioner is the lustful, animal soul; the Undersoul of which there is no escape. Even Salem’s one effort to better himself turns itself against him in a half hearted attempt at doing good, the commissioner meanwhile retreats ever more into darkness and violence, being more aware of his own heart than Salem himself while Khaldiya slips into chaos and a revolutionary storm.

Salem looks over his sculpted creation, the city of clay Khaldiya

As it turns out, City of Clay can be read on a few levels hough: as the study of the mental breakdown of the main character, as an allegory and indictment of contemporary life in Egypt or as a phantasmagorical fantasy play. It is to Hulsing’s credit that all levels are present in the story and that deeper meanings only surface after a while.

Hulsing’s watercolour art swerves across the page with a German expressionistic flair reminiscent of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He makes the straight white sandstone buildings of the Egyptian city conform to the mood of Salem and his inner turmoil; buildings croak, stand askew and loom silently overhead. Absurdist camera angles come and go befitting the mood of the Kafka-esque scenes and colour is used to differentiate between the real and fictional world, mixing things up as the mental springs coils up. The pages are drowned in brownish hues, reflecting both the dust filled streets and the stifling atmosphere.

Two sequential pages of City of Clay, illustrating Hulsing’s skewed approach to the city’s building blocks and interiors.

Once in a while you stumble upon a powerhouse of a story. City of Clay definitely fits into that category: brooding, evocative, thoughtful and timeless yet reflective of modern times. Milan Hulsing has chronicled the downfall of a man with nothing left to lose who just wants to escape from reality but finds himself maybe escaping a bit too much. Highly recommended!

City of Clay by Milan Hulsing is published in Dutch by Oog en Blik / De Bezige Bij. It is a 134 pages full colour graphic novel retailing for €19.90

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