Book Review: Pictograms tell stories

Novel: A History of Words** XU BING Grasset 128 pgs., €9.90

We all know about emoticons. On tablets or smartphones, in emails, we add :-) to show a smile or ;-) for amused complicity. We provide information with smileys without using words. U.S.-based Chinese artist Xu Bing and Italian graphic artists Matteao Civaschi and Gianmarco Milesi from Milan’s H-57creative design studio decided that they could stretch the possibilities and explore the world of icons and pictograms. The Italians have told 180 stories in this way – from Moby Dick to Romeo and Juliette, from Adolf Hitler to the Great Wall of China, from George W. Bush to Michael Jackson and from guns to Ikea. Xu Bing has “written” an entire novel.

From Bloom to Black

The novel recounts 24 hours in the life of a man named Mr. Black because he is represented in black. There is not one single word in the book’s 128 pages – only images and pictograms. Mr. Black wakes up, goes to the bathroom, eats breakfast, takes a shower, gets dressed, goes to work, works (a little), talks (a lot) with his coworkers, dreams about women, and has a drink with a woman he met on the internet, etc. Far from being Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mr. Black is preoccupied with his physiological functions, with the banality of his days, the ordinary happenings over and over again within himself. Bloom is the novel’s hero, while Black is only an icon.

That is really the limiting factor in this exercise. Xu Bing opens the door on a new and fascinating universe, into which his “readers” want to dive to admire his inventiveness and creativity. He dreamed up all of his book’s pictograms and its pages are beautiful. But, there is not much more beyond this aesthetic. I didn’t experience any literary emotion when I read it. There is no poetry, lyricism, abstraction or life in this “novel.” I also had some trouble understanding some “phrases,” that is, one pictogram or another. Perhaps, I did the wrong thing by trying to translate these images into words rather than to immediately integrate them, but…

Despite all this, the book, like those of the Italian graphic artists, is a fascinating object. Without a doubt it opens new perspectives in which their fans will obviously be swallowed up.

JEAN-CLAUDE VANTROYEN

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