Diane Obamsawin, writer/artist
Drawn & Quarterly, January 2009
Again with the brown for the cover, but alright, fine, I’m clearly on the losing end of this aesthetic battle with D&Q and I accept that. What’s far more interesting here, and it’s a shame if the drab cover (not to mention the choice of grayscale for the interiors) obscure this, is the story of Kaspar itself. Or rather himself–Obomsawin here traces through contemporaneous accounts the life of one Kaspar Hauser, who for five years around 1830 intrigued and baffled European society with his amazing story of spending his first 16 years kept in total isolation with no human contact whatsoever before being taught some rudimentary language and handwriting by a mysterious man in black who then left him in Nuremberg to fend for himself. Kaspar’s story is one of a kind of cruelty my mind and soul virtually invert themselves to avoid having to deal with–I’m reminded of the story my wife told me from one of her psych courses, about a 19th-century experiment that used loud noises to condition a baby to be so afraid of bunnies that eventually he couldn’t even see a cotton ball without screaming. There’s something so unspeakably awful about human beings harming the human beinghood of a child right from the start that when I came across lines from Kaspar like “There is straw on the ground where I sit and sleep–it never occurs to me to want to stand up,” or the idea that he doesn’t know there even is anything else but himself, the bread and water he’s brought while sleeping, and the toy horse he’s locked up with, part of me just wants to run and hide. The trick of the book upon Hauser’s Chauncey Gardiner-like entrance into high society is using his literal inability to fathom the cruelty done to him (how can he–until now he had no context for what he was missing) and his appreciation for simple things like the color red or the concept of distance as a proxy for our own rejection of such monstrousness and a way to awaken our own lust for life respectively.
Of course, a visit to Wikipedia reveals that Hauser was almost certainly a peerless goldbricker, something his various patrons almost all cottoned to eventually, and from which the mysterious accidents and “assaults” that repeatedly befell and eventually killed him were likely self-inflicted to distract. Obomsawin’s choices to tell the story from Kaspar’s first-person perspective and to draw it in a simplistic, childlike, unadorned fashion we naturally scan as a direct outgrowth of Kaspar’s naivete–not to mention her one-page direct-address strip at the end, detailing her research for us, her “dear readers”–are a conscious effort to put aside the controversy and tease metaphorical meaning out of a story that’s too good to check. But if you’re like me, your mind already scrambled its way to “oh, this has gotta be a hoax, he must have been putting them on” long before you closed the book and opened up Google, and so the whole time you’re reading you’re wondering not just what Kaspar’s suffering, his reaction to society, and society’s reaction to him say to us–you’re wondering what the fact that someone could fake all that stuff says to us as well. I’m still wondering. In a way, the need in someone who’d do that is every bit as deep and devastating as the need in someone who was like that for real.