Sometimes the most unlikely image can provide insight into the nature of tyranny. Take, for example, a comic-book picture of a small boy vomiting. The comic book is Paracuellos, Carlos Giménez's memoir of growing up in the orphanages of Francisco Franco's Spain. There are actually several upchuckings in this work, and the symbolic wallop they pack makes clear why Giménez is celebrated in the European comics scene.
One boy, Elias, has the temerity to agree when a visitor asks if he would like a cup of milk. Once the visitor's gone, the matron makes him drink cup after cup until he throws it all up. Then there's Octaviano. He's the victim of a dormitory bully's ingenious game: Whoever drinks the most glasses of water will win a coveted fig bar. Octaviano manages 15 glasses before vomiting and gets sick with a 103-degree fever.
Besides dramatizing the link between the human body and the body politic — neither of which can tolerate the unnaturalness of such evil — the two incidents make a powerful point: In these pagesthe bullies torture the other kids with the same vicious creativity the adults use to torture everyone. The parallels with fascism are clear.
Such pungent stories are found throughout Paracuellos. It's amazing that it took so long for this work, seamlessly translated by Sonya Jones, to be released in the U.S. Giménez' acute moral sensitivity, needle-sharp characterizations and knack for narrative make Paracuellos comparable to Maus and Persepolis.
His artwork may surpass them. Despite all the homes' inmates having the same haircut and knock-kneed physique, Giménez makes dozens of boys into real individuals. Especially in the first book, his skinny lines and delicate strokes perfectly capture the movements of gangly, nervous kids. Common illustrator's gimmicks — wide eyes to express innocence, oversized heads and ears to offset rail-thin forms — feel necessary and expressive here.
Giménez lived in five different homes from ages 6-14 and encountered a diverse mix of kids. Spanish comics historian Antonio Martin explains some common backstories in his excellent introduction: "Their fathers had died or ... there was no bread to eat ... their mothers were sick or ... the number of siblings at home condemned them to hunger," he writes. But even if the children were taken from their homes to prevent starvation, that's exactly what they found at the state institutions.
Their deprivation was extreme. The food, when not full of bugs, still wasn't appetizing or nutritious. "For the first course, semolina, 'puree of throw-up,'" one boy explains to a newcomer. "For the second course, cooked sardines, a kind of black goo that we call 'cow flop.'" Nonetheless, there was never enough. In one story the boys go through the garbage for orange rinds or anything else semi-edible. A bully tattles on them, and a teacher punishes them by depriving them even more: "If you've been eating trash, one would assume that you are no longer hungry." At certain times of the year, Giménez writes, there wasn't even enough water to drink.
Then there was the constant threat and reality of physical violence. The teachers and matrons regularly hit the boys and even ordered them to fight one another. In a particularly disturbing story, Adolfo is sexually molested by a matron, Miss Marisa, then brutally beaten by two different teachers when he tells the other boys about it. Then there's the bullying, as in the case of Sancha, who trades half a loaf of bread to Miguel for his eternal obedience. Sancha orders Miguel to walk onto a narrow ledge, and Miguel falls and nearly dies.
This violence, however, isn't that different from what happened in similar institutions in other countries at the time, such as Ireland's notorious Catholic schools and orphanages. To what degree are the evils Giménez depicts those of a fascist regime, and to what degree do they crop up in any institutional home for children? Giménez compels the reader to wrestle with this question. With his unflinching backward gaze, he's made the experiences of a handful of boys in 1950s Spain inescapably universal.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.