Thursday, August 24, 2006

Breeding Humor

Volker KriegelThe Truth About Dogs.Translated and introduced by Julian BarnesBloomsbury, 1986. (121 p.)

I cried the first time I read The Truth About Dogs. Tears literally fell down my face. I don't remember now which of the cartoons I read first, whether it was the image of a man checking the bottom of his shoe with the caption "Dogs shit everywhere" or whether it was the series titled "A Comparison of Breeds" that showed various dogs caught in the act, straddled and intent. Whatever it was, it was brilliant. The subtle humor exhibited in Volker Kriegel's collection builds inside you until no amount of restraint can control your laughter. Kriegel's drawings are intelligent and timeless for their insights into both canines and, more importantly, humans. The dogs presented here are surprisingly real. They serve as mirrors of our own laziness, carelessness, crassness, ineptitude, kindness, and silliness. Of special interest to Barnes readers is the thoughtful, considered, and warmly funny introduction that Barnes provides for the collection.

Kriegel's relationship to Julian Barnes does not end with The Truth About Dogs. For several German editions of Barnes's novels, Volker Kriegel provided illustrations for the dust jackets. As a gifted illustrator, Kriegel could have easily thrown together some generic images to satisfy a deadline, to receive a paycheck and be on his way. What is heartening, however, is the attention to thematic detail and the respect Kriegel shows Barnes's work. The Metroland cover shows the expected train, but notice the gaze and direction of the man's face. Distinctly British, this suited ("settled"?) man stares away from the train toward its destination, leaning for a better look. He does not smile and his general stance reveals an additional insight into the characterization of Metroland's protagonist Chris.

Kriegel's illustration for Talking It Over shows the trio of friends just after Stuart and Gillian have married. The couple is happily embraced in laughter with expectations of a new life together. Oliver is smiling, too. He has just fallen in love with his best friend's wife and knowingly places a supportive hand on Stuart's shoulder. In a superb touch by Kriegel, Oliver is staring directly at the reader in a visual attempt to mimic the novel's tendency to have the characters address the reader.

In one of the best dust jacket illustrations to any Barnes novel, Kriegel presents a woman's belly, thighs, and pubic hair being watched over by a group of men with leering eyes. The scene perfectly matches the sentiment of the novel, suggesting all that Graham Hendrick fears about his wife's former love life. The imagine immediately brings to mind a passage from the chapter "Mister Carwash":

    'Now stop me if I'm boring you, Graham, but you see, what she really liked wasn't just me. It was all of us. All of us at the same time. Doing different things to her. I won't be specific, I know these things can be hurtful; I'll just leave you to imagine it. But the first time she got us all to do things to her at the same time, we were all sort of swarming over her, licking her and stuff, she said it was just like being in a carwash.' p. 94

Knowing the care with which Kriegel crafted these dust jacket images makes one realize just how much thought went into each of the cartoons in The Truth About Dogs. The shock and blatant humor of the pieces supply the initial round of pleasure, but the details and truth of the scenes are what give the book longevity.

-- Ryan Roberts, January 2001

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