The Arrival is a wordless graphic novel by Shaun Tan, an Australian author. Its images are sepia-toned, as if they come from an old photo album. It begins with a man saying goodbye to his wife and children: he is leaving them to go to a new country, to make a new life, and they will join him someday, as soon as he can manage it. He takes a little money, and some papers, and a photo to remind him of home.
The rest of the book tells the story of his arrival in the new country, which is completely unlike any country any reader of this blog has ever seen in the details of its food, animals, written language, clothing, and housing. Tan wants us to accompany the man in his complete disorientation about the most basic tasks: how do I find shelter? How do I find work? Is this vegetable edible? Why don’t they have something as essential as bread? Should I be afraid of this bird? How can I begin to communicate? How much does this cost? Where do I go next? The country Tan creates is both frightening and beautiful, like a tight-wire act.
Of course, I say that it’s completely unlike any existing country, but that’s only true in the details. Tan’s gloriously detailed views of the city show places of work (factories, shops, little food kiosks, strange mail boxes); places of leisure that might be parks or fountains; homes; people and animals on their busy way. We (and the man beginning his new life) might not be able to read the words on the signs or determine whether a given alleyway is public or private space or know how to cook an odd-looking curly fruit, but all those concepts exist in our home countries.
One of the wonderful things about The Arrival is that the man runs across other immigrants as he fumblingly finds his way. The book goes into flashback mode as the new acquaintance shares his or her story of coming to the new world: sometimes escaping oppression or war, sometimes looking for a better economic chance. I loved the part when the produce-seller, cheerfully introducing frighteningly new foods to the protagonist, invites him back to his own home and tells his horrific story of war — and food and friendship ease some of those scars.
I couldn’t possibly overhype the beauty of Tan’s drawing: it is silent, moving and realistic, yet how do you describe realism of a place that never existed? The endpapers of the book are photorealistic pictures of some of the immigrants that came through Ellis Island in the US: a reminder that the arrival continues to happen all over the world, every day.