Letter to Survivors

Reviewed by Derek Wall

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In a post-apocalyptic world, or at least a French part of it, a postman patiently dons his radioactive suit, boots and mask, mounts his bicycle and delivers letters to the nuclear family in the nuclear shelter. Published for the first time in English, Gébé’s sparsely drawn cartoon from the nuclear age delivers a message to those of us in the 21st century awaiting new catastrophes. It is difficult to review, for at least three reasons. First, the cartoonist Gébé’s inspirations and intentions are obscure, Letters to Survivors makes Waiting for Godot look like an episode of the Simpsons. Second, any comment risks providing devastating spoilers. Finally, it would be all too easy to lapse in to anglophone clichés about surrealism, Guy Debord, Pierrot Le Fou and glasses of pastis.

Like Spinoza’s account of God or Nature there are an infinite or, at least, numerous set of attributes that might be applied to Letters to Survivors. Back in the 1980s I remember the absurdity of the UK government’s ‘Protect and Survive’ programme, with school lectures on nuclear survival. The much-parodied nuclear shelter would have been an impossible place to live for more than a day or two. During the Cold War, perhaps all life and certainly most popular culture was haunted by the threat of nuclear war. From Raymond Briggs’ cartoon When the Wind Blows to the Twilight Zone’s iconic episode ‘The Shelter’, later parodied on The Simpsons, life after mutually assured destruction was imagined in pen, prose and film. Gébé’s cartoon is set in a radioactive world but this is more than a simple parable about resisting nuclear devastation. It points to the letter as a message, a message than is obscure but repeated. A message that, once the family leave the shelter and the radiation clears, disaster will strike again.

Indeed when we feel we are autonomous, become prosperous, enjoying leisure, Gébé implies we are enslaved to the obscure passions of the rich and the powerful. This suggests an obvious connection with the politics of climate change and other ecological ills. With rising temperatures, feedback mechanisms melting the permafrost and the likes of Trump seeking to accelerate climate change (I guess he has already sold our planet for holiday homes for the wealthy retired pensioners of Venus), apocalypse looks likely to be here. At my most pessimistic I wonder whether we are a little like a person who has fallen off a high building, we can see the ground looming towards us, but before our brains hit the pavement, we regret not acting in a more safety conscious way.

Gébé has a political letter to deliver, but his message isn’t simply that individuals should act responsibly to avoid catastrophe. It also goes further than stating that capitalism generates disaster. It is both more subtle and more strange. However, you will have to read this entertaining and beautifully put together cartoon to find out more; even then it is little like a Rinzai Zen koan, you have to wrestle with the apparent ridiculousness in order to learn.

Gébé, as the introduction tells us, had a colourful life as provocative anarchist cartoonist, working for many publications before he died in 2004. The footnote about L'Enragé, a magazine founded in 1968 which he worked for, I feel captures the mood of these publications:

Founded by Jean-Jacques Pauvert (1926-2014), the first to openly publish de Sade, and later publisher of Bataillie, Dali, Bretton, and The Story of O. ‘This paper’ declared the first issue, ‘is a paving stone. It can be used as a fuse for a Molotov cocktail. It can be used to hide a blackjack. It can be used as a makeshift gas mask.

I guess those journalists and politicians such as Anna Soubry MP from the centre-right Independent Group, appalled by the disruption caused by the Extinction Rebellion and Climate Strikes protest against climate change, would take another lesson from Letter to Survivors. I am not sure that they would ever read it, but if they did they would be pleased to know that even after apocalypse the mail is still being delivered. There is something here about questioning how real life is staged, challenging the normal and embracing disruption if we are to avoid not just the catastrophes of climate change and nuclear war but the catastrophic nature of everyday life in a capitalist society.

Derek Wall is a former International Coordinator of the Green Party and is currently working on a new book about the practical politics of climate change.

Letter to Survivors, Gébé

New York Review Books, 2018
ISBN 9781681372402

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