‘History isn’t dry,” wrote novelist Margaret Atwood, “it’s sticky; it can get all over your hands.”
I kept thinking of these words as I read through the new non-fiction graphic novel Mandela and the General, written by journalist John Carlin and powerfully illustrated by Catalan artist Oriol Malet.
The reality of the violence that punctuated apartheid is too often diluted by the rainbow of unity that was to follow and it’s easy to forget the gravity of the precipice South Africa stood on during the transition to democracy.
This thrilling novel shows exactly how wrong everything could have gone. Yes, critics will say it simplifies history, reinforces binaries and conflates the complexities of the struggle into two figureheads, former president Nelson Mandela and former military general Constand Viljoen. See the sales pitch: “Nelson Mandela’s fight against racism is about to spiral into an all-out race war. Unless he can win over his archenemy, the white supremacist General Viljoen, the democratic struggle for equality and justice in South Africa will end in ‘the peace of graveyards’.”
Ultimately, of course, the novel is testament to the power of working together and negotiating peace, but what it masters is showing how high the stakes were.
Mandela and the General is a great way to keep history alive and challenging for kids. It’s far from dry, and that has a lot to do with Carlin’s deft touch and sense of history – but mostly it has to do with Malet’s illustrations. They are stylised but realistic, evocative and politically charged, dripping with blood and humanity.
#Trending emailed his studio in Barcelona, Spain, to chat about his designs.
“A challenge” is how he describes the project. He was contacted by a publisher friend who “was looking for an artist who could make a realistic but fresh and personal style. It was also necessary that the artist did not need to start from a detailed script. We started from journalistic notes without a script,” Malet told #Trending.
He related strongly to the story, he said, because of growing up in the Catalan struggle for independence from Spain, which reached a new crisis stage as he was working on the drawings.
“On the one hand I was explaining how South Africa could get out of apartheid and embark on a democratic future thanks to Mandela, and on the other hand I was suffering the injustice of our politicians who were unable to solve a much smaller problem.”
Catalan politicians were jailed, some without trial, during the latest tensions.
“Now these Catalan politicians have read and are enthusiastic about Mandela and the General; I took the book to them in prison myself,” says Malet.
Asked about drawing Mandela and Viljoen, Malet said he spent some time internalising their characteristics before he started drawing.
And about the aesthetic line he walked between style and character, peace and war, he said: “We ran the danger of whitewashing history, but at the same time we were careful not to fall into a morbid excess. I did not hesitate to work and show the violence when the scenes demanded a certain hardness and it was necessary to understand the message.
“We must not forget that it is a comic, not just a historical or journalistic document, and the comic allows – and in a certain way asks for – a degree of cinematographic or literary drama to catch the reader and at the same time express a reality.
“There were nights when I really went to bed very shocked, and the next day I needed to talk about it with John, who offered me a good perspective from his experience.”