In art, negative space is the empty air around a subject. Unless there’s something there to draw the eye, it’s often registered as a void, a vacuum. It’s not used casually; most paintings situate their subjects in a place rather than in emptiness. Such emptiness inspires a sort of pensiveness, an uncertainty. It reminds us of our own smallness and insignificance, particularly when viewed through the wide lens of history.
It’s telling, then, how much negative space Zeina Abirached uses in her graphic memoir, A Game for Swallows. Uncertainty and worry infect each page. Abirached was born during the Lebanese civil war, a conflict that lasted nearly fifteen years and claimed 120,000 lives. There was also a mass exodus from the country, with over a million Lebanese leaving. A Game for Swallows gives little background to the politics of the conflict. Instead, it tells a relatively simple story. Over the course of a night, while her parents are visiting her grandmother, Abirached’s neighbors gather in the foyer of her family’s apartment. They tell stories, listen to the news, drink coffee and whiskey, and listen to war that surrounds them.
It’s a slice of life narrative whose pace and flow sometimes meader but never lose their effectiveness. The artwork is full of strong lines and patterns, bordering on whimsical, and reminiscent of Islamic geometric designs. We never see a bomb, a gun, or a pool of blood, perhaps because this is a child’s recollection. Instead, there is that negative space, that sense that one lacks control. One of the characters, Ernest, a cheerful and nattily-dressed man, is introduced when he enters the foyer reciting, as is his habit, lines from Cyrano de Bergerac. “Let all who long for death lift up their hands!” he proclaims, running his fingers over his comical mustache.
In the next panel, it explains that Ernest’s twin brother was killed by a sniper, that his body lay in the street all night. There is always space around Ernest, a physical distance that envelops him.
It’s almost inevitable that A Game For Swallows will be compared to other war memoirs like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Both of those have narratives, however, that stretch across years, and sometimes generations. They are as much about conflict as characters. In A Game For Swallows, the conflict is still present, but as an unspoken, unseen monster.
In the foyer where nearly all the action takes place, there is a wall hanging that depicts Moses and the Hebrews fleeing Egypt. A large, fierce dragon occupies a large part of the scene, either surveying or causing the Exodus. In one memorable sequence, the wall hanging fades, leaving only the dragon hovering above empty chairs and the outside crumbling Beirut skyline, as if flying above the afflicted city.
The title is explained at the end of the book, a photograph of a piece of graffiti as Abirached and her family are leaving Beirut. On a scarred wall, outside of shuttered apartment buildings, someone has written “MOURIR PARTIR REVENIR, C’EST LE JEU DES HIRONDELLES”. The words seem both detached and urgent. In English, it translates as, “To Die, To Leave, To Return, It’s a Game for Swallows”.
A Game For Swallows classified as a graphic novel for young adults, which makes me think a comparison to books like The Diary of Anne Frank or Zlata’s Diary might be more appropriate. While Abirached’s story has its limits, it’s well-worth the read. The art is beautiful and unique, drawn with a precise hand and an eye towards shapes and patterns. It reads like a one-act play rather than a full novel, but a moving and poignant one.