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How wonderful to read through a graphic novel involving war that isn’t entirely focused on tragedy and visual horrors. While there’s no denying how visuals can have a more direct and immediate impact on readers, the tendency some artists have to focus on the more visceral nature of combat brings with it the potential to degrade the medium’s potential, or for some to take the material less seriously.
Papaya Salad, the debut graphic novel from Thai-Italian artist Elisa Macellari, trades the harder edges of most war biographies for a softer, more spiritual flavor. And what a flavor! Striking visuals and dazzling colors illustrate her great-uncle Sompong Kunchai’s meditative recollections and spiritual journey of how unavoidable and frustrating disappointments helped propel him through unimaginable challenges he never dreamed could happen to him.
Originally published in Italian in 2018, now translated into English by Carla Roncalli Di Montorio, we finally get to explore the delicious and refreshing nature of Macellari’s spicy, yet thoughtful memoir.
At a family dinner, an older Sompong tells of his travels across Thailand as a boy with his family to his eventual deployment in Europe for the duration of World War II. His early years are spent following his policeman father’s continuous deployment, only finding stability as a teenager once settled in Bangkok to focus on his studies. A series of chance encounters with some local Buddhists, from their cremation of a corpse to a monk’s wayward hammer helps reveal a concrete statue’s golden inner beauty, would have a life-changing impact on his life.
Realizing he’s not cut out to be a doctor, Sompong sabotages his medical entrance exam (“accidentally on purpose”) and joins the army, which offers scholarships abroad that match his dream to learn languages and travel the world. His hard work pays off when he’s awarded the academy’s first scholarship to study at a military academy in Berlin, Germany. Things were looking up for young Sompong when disaster strikes – a guy with a tiny black mustache declares war on Poland – ending what would have been his first trip outside his native Thailand.
Fortunately, the academy pivots and reassigns him to Italy, thankfully before Mussolini has the audacity to go and muck things up for him. Sompong ventures from one detail to the next, eventually winding up in a practically deserted Berlin after all to find the city wrecked by Allied bombing. A series of chances would eventually bring him in contact with Lek, the beautiful daughter of an ambassador whom he spends his post-war confinement with (and eventually marries).
Despite taking place within the context of WW2 Papaya Salad isn’t concerned with the theater of war, or with much of anything really. Honestly, Sompong’s journey from Thailand to Europe isn’t one filled with thrilling adventures or unbelievable stories of heroism, but rather a routine and mostly pedestrian charting of a young man’s spiritual maturation into adulthood. Events he probably considered catastrophic at the time are now seen as inconveniences, interruptions in his singular dream to leave home and find happiness anywhere else but where he was from.
What’s interesting is how his progression is framed. In fact, we never sense that he’s ever in any real danger. When Sompong and his Thai companions are found by the Allies after the war, they’re originally mistaken for Japanese soldiers, only to be housed in a palatial estate eating three meals per day, playing cards. Or how he and his fellow classmates celebrated his graduation in Italy, safely enjoying pizza while Berlin – the city he was originally supposed to be stationed – was under constant bombardment. Who was Sompong Kunchai to blame Nang Kwak, the goddess of fortune herself, for failing to protect him?
Sompong’s “journey” is more spiritual, an internal reckoning of his own inner doubts and frustrations than the physical war raging around him. Thailand is home to the second-largest Buddhism population in the world (China being the first) – a fact which instantly grants Thai practitioners status as the religion’s most devout adherents, given the state of religious freedoms in modern China. This connection between nation and their faith is deeply felt in how Macellari illustrates Sompong’s journey with the same vivid colors and clean renderings you’d find in the country’s holiest places; the heart of Thai Buddhism is felt on every page.
It’s fair to suggest how Sompong interprets how certain events in his life appear to play out karmically could be seen as the psychological retconning of unrelated circumstances – a sort of metaphysical irreducible complexity. Regardless, the recognition of his own mindfulness during these situations still represents an impressive maturation of his ability to navigate the world, such as how the memory of his mother’s papaya salad (among other things) binds Sompong to his ancestral homeland and helps strengthen his faith in himself. In this newfound resoluteness, he’s better able to deal with the strange circumstances he keeps landing in and, ultimately, thriving.
Nowhere is this more beautifully illustrated when an imprisoned Sompong, under guard by American soldiers within a glamorous hotel, accepts his given situation, comparing himself to a restless gibbon, caged and far from its native jungle. Realizing his metaphor, Lek, his fellow captive and future wife, asks what else she should know about gibbons. “They love papaya”, he tells her. And they mate for life.
Those expecting much in the way of an actual plot or conflict resolution may be disappointed with Elisa Macellari’s visually splendid Papaya Salad. Here is a story concerned with a young man’s journey to maturity and his own mindfulness; how learning to control yourself in the future first requires acceptance of the present. Thus, it’s more likely to appeal to fans of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings than the symbolic realism of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but it’s exactly this slow-burn approach that gives Macellari’s excellent debut its power.