The Wall

There are a number of things you all know about me by now.  You know I’m a little crazy about children’s books, obviously.  You’ve probably figured out that I’m a bleeding-heart Canadian liberal, and I’ll tell you for free that I’m also easy to bring to tears with any sad book (ask my mother about when I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles).  And you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of Peter Sís: Ice Cream Summer and Madlenka’s Dog.  All of that comes into play in this post about Peter Sís’s wonderful book The Wall.

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Folks, this book was amazing.  Just plain amazing.  It did the best thing a book can do for me: it opened my mind and my heart, and, when I finished reading, I realized just how little I knew, and how much I felt.  If you thought you knew something about the USSR or about growing up under an oppressive regime, stop right there (unless, you know, you really did grow up under an oppressive regime) and take the time to read this book.  I guarantee that you’ll have learned something new by the end of it.

First of all, I want you to understand that this book was published in 2007.  Usually I write about either classics or, most frequently, about really new books, but I wanted to tell you about this one for two reasons: a) I just read it a few days ago, and, as I said, it had a profound effect on me, and b) it seems uncannily resonant right now, in the current political climate in the USA.

But what is the book?  Well, it’s half memoirs, half history lesson, and, together, the two halves form a seething yet incredibly lucid ball of ideas and ideals.  What do I mean?  The memoirs and history are easy to show.  The ideas and ideals emanate in a more nuanced fashion, but we’ll get there.  Let’s start with an overview of what Peter Sís says, and then we’ll go back and talk about how he says it.

Peter Sís starts with himself as a child, an ordinary child who loves to draw.  And then we go into a multi-panel explanation of the world he lives in.  Here, I’ll show you a crappy phone picture of what it looks like.  The actual book looks a thousand times better:

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I’ll draw your attention to a few things: Note that your eyes are first drawn to the big red star on the upper right and to the baby pictures in the middle of the left page (or at least that was my experience).  The baby looks so normal and happy, and the main text on the bottom of the pages is likewise normal development.  And the splashes of red have no context yet.  Then you read the annotations and notice the framing pictures: invasions, militia, and oppression become clear.  Turn the page, and, gradually, the semblance of normalcy deteriorates as well: “He drew shapes,” as you see above, becomes “He drew tanks. He drew wars.”  It’s heart-wrenching, especially as you read in an annotation, “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students.  Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.”  The illustrations remain grey with splashes of red, deceptively simple, but the text grows steadily grimmer.

You might think that it would be tough to read a whole book like that, but Peter Sís is way ahead of you:

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In case you weren’t getting the message already, this page bursts out of the book, with a real sense of emergency.  And the ensuing page is radically different, defining the image you’ve just seen.  He moves from the grey and red panels to a set of snippets, all dated, from his journals.  1954: “We’re supporting world peace by not eating meat on Thursdays.”  September 1963: “My school visited the Mausoleum to view the embalmed body of the first working-class Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Comrade Klement Gottwald.  It was scary.”

As we continue the story, things begin to change– more colour creeps in through the grey and red as more news from outside creeps in through the Iron Curtain: “Slowly he started to question.  He painted what he wanted to– in secret.”  And then comes the Prague Spring of 1968, and, with it, the seemingly endless possibilities of art, travel, music… the Beatles.  Peter Sís tells us of travelling Europe, of growing his hair, of starting a rock band.

And then it’s all over.  “Russian tanks were everywhere.”  I watched the returning oppression with a breaking heart: was it worse than having never tasted freedom?  But Peter Sís doesn’t let you think that, not for long.  We witness his debate: should he continue to draw, as his drawings could be used against him, or else: “But he had to draw.  Sharing the dreams gave him hope.”  And, we find, he wasn’t alone.  The colour continues to suffuse the grey panels as ordinary citizens paint a wall– the soldiers erase their art– and the citizens repaint it– again and again.

And so it goes: June 1977, “Rumors, rumors, rumors.  Everyone suspects everyone else of being an informer.  Can we hope things are ever going to get better?”  A series of pictures follow depicting the greyness of despair, and the colour of hope.

And, of course, things do get better, eventually: “On November 9, 1989, the wall fell.”

I’m barely ashamed to tell you that, when I turned the page and saw those words, saw the image accompanying them– my eyes teared up a little.  I’m not Czech.  I have no connection to Peter Sís’s world or childhood.  But I was so caught up in wanting to see the young Peter Sís break free of oppression and gain the right to draw what he wanted that at that sign of freedom I was truly emotional.  (Also: see above re: bleeding-heart Canadian liberal who’s easy to bring to tears.)

I’ve already gone on at length about what the book contains, and you’ve seen the cross between memoirs and history as we talked about the contents.  But I promised you could also see a roiling mass of ideas and ideals.  I think those have already come through pretty clearly, as well, but just to pin them down: if you care at all about freedom, particularly creative freedom (art, music, writing) then you’ll respond immediately to young Peter Sís’s frustrations growing up under an oppressive regime.  The Wall he talks about isn’t just the physical Wall or even the ideological Wall of the Iron Curtain: it’s a Wall in people’s minds, banning ideas, thoughts, desires– and, by implication, forcing people to sequester those thoughts in a different part of the brain, to try to kill them.  But people and ideas are strong, resilient, and, at the first sign of light, the ideas germinate and begin to grow.

This book has been haunting me for days.  We may not be talking about building a physical Wall just this second (although it’s never far from the current political discourse), but we’re seeing a lot of Walls these days, and they worry me: Walls between the rich and poor, men and women, and, what I increasingly fear, Walls in our discourse between truths and untruths.  This is not an easy time.  Frankly, it’s a really hard time.  It’s hard to keep working.  But this book teaches us to keep on working, keep on dreaming, and to never, ever stop fighting against Walls.  (I’m going to link you to it again: The Wall.)

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