SOUTHERN CROSS reviewed by The Montreal Mirror

“Southen Cross” / Montreal Mirror / Juliet Waters / November 11, 2007

I read too much. So every once in a while I detox my brain the way some people detox their bodies. For a week, I deprive myself of as much reading as I can: newspapers, e-mail, cereal boxes. After a week of no new ideas, I’m back in touch with friends, listening to music again, busting through household clutter, feeling the sun on my face…

It was during a reading deprivation week that I came across Southern Cross: ANovel of the South Seas by Laurence Hyde, a wordless novel told entirely in 118 wood engravings. Doing my best to maintain my regime, I skipped the introduction and started with the first exquisitely detailed etchings.

Dark clouds frame a South Seas island. Lightning cracks. A fisherman herds his small family into a grass hut. Fears are calmed; the storm passes. The sun carves deep rays into the gloom. This is how Southern Cross opens, but somehow it’s obvious that the calm after the storm is unlikely to last through the next 100 etchings.

Wood engraving is so labour intensive, it’s difficult to tell a story without making generous use of negative space. No matter how ideal the setting, darkness inevitably looms on the horizon. This explains why wood engravings tend to be used for telling dark battles between good and evil. I learned this after finishing Hyde’s deeply tragic novel, and immediately blowing off reading deprivation week so I could read Hyde’s history of the medium.

Hyde first published this book in 1951 as a response to nuclear testing in the South Pacific. (It’s been recently re-published by Drawn & Quarterly.) He turns out to be as charming a writer as he is an artist. Block books, he explains, emerged somewhere around the same time as the Gutenberg press and were ancestors to comic books. The most popular block book of all time, running into 20 editions, is an early Middle Age brochure called Ars Moriendi.

“A somewhat amusing text book (amusing only to us in the twentieth century, I can assure you) on how to die in a proper state of grace, made because priests, who usually officiated at the bedside, were so terribly overworked during the great plague years of the Middle Ages that the stricken had to usher themselves out of this world and into the next.”

More lightly amusing is Hyde’s anecdote of trying to get Southern Cross published. “Soon the chief editor came bounding out... ‘After glancing through your book,’ he barked, ‘I gather it is made up entirely of pictures. I can assure you that Mr. K—would look askance at any substitute for the written word.’” Hyde assures us with wry indignation, “This is meant to be no substitute for the written word. Indeed no more difficult way of telling a story could be found, I am sure, than by cutting it out on little individual blocks of wood. Take it from me.”

If fear of words being replaced by illustrations sounds bizarre, consider the fame (at the time) of Rockwell Kent, who writes an introduction to Southern Cross. An illustrated Random House edition of Moby Dick had to be recalled because Kent’s name was so prominently featured, they forgot to include Herman Melville’s. In fact, Moby Dick was a largely forgotten novel until Kent’s illustrations brought it back into print.

At its heart, Southern Cross is a story about tension between technologies. The overt story is the one between nuclear technology and simple rural technology. Reading it today, it serves as a poignant reminder of how poorly we’ve progressed in protecting nature from modern technology. But reading between the novel’s beautiful lines, there’s another story: the tension between visual representation and the written word. It’s a tension that’s been going on for longer than we realize. And that will, hopefully, continue for longer than we will.

Southern Cross: A Novel of the South Seas
by Laurence Hyde, Drawn & Quarterly,
HC, 259PP, $24.95

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