The subversive power of humour

A political cartoonist who toppled a leader comes across a past event that shaped his life.

Published: 25th June 2016 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th June 2016 11:08 AM   |  A+A-

Throughout history, monarchs, tyrants, dictators and politicians of all hues have been terrified of being lampooned by cartoonists, who need not say a word, but simply dip their ‘stingers’ into ‘honey’ and sketch out the truth—perhaps with the help of an accompanying caption whose tinder is ridicule. The political cartoonist (in fact any cartoonist) thus carries a huge responsibility where even the slightest slip of the pen can make or break (often great) men’s lives, both literally and figuratively.

The Subver.jpgJuan Gabriel Marquez, the prize-winning young writer from Columbia, presents just such a problem to Mallarino—the protagonist of the book. A searing political cartoonist, Mallarino suddenly has to face doubts over a cartoon he drew half a lifetime ago that destroyed an (admittedly) venal political figure. The cartoon was based on an ‘event’ that took place at Mallarino’s house during a house-warming party to which the political figure more or less gate-crashed and involved a 10-year-old girl—a friend of Mallarino’s daughter. The girl is now grown-up and she turns up looking for the truth, which Mallarino— a hugely sensitive, receptive person (as cartoonists must be)—is now forced to examine and question himself.

Marquez gets into his characters’ minds and thought processes brilliantly, lucidly and grippingly. This is no thriller, but you read it like one, emerging much the richer for the experience. The prose is riveting, and even the numerous side and back-stories relating are compelling. His sentences are often long (‘streams of consciousness?’—but down-to-earth, lucid and logical ones at that—nothing vaporous here), but it’s easy to follow the train of thought. For instance, Mallarino thinking about the breakdown of his daughter Beatriz’s marriage: ‘...they too were worn down by the diverse strategies life has to wear lovers down... to see it coming and step aside and feel it blow past like a meteorite grazing the planet.’

It is ironical of course, that these days, the objects of a cartoonist’s ridicule are unable to take a dig against themselves and retaliate viciously; most are certainly not sensitive souls whose sentiments (if they have any) get easily hurt as they pretend. They are afraid that the truth —or some of it at least—is now out there in the public domain. In this book, Marquez shows the readers that cartoonists equally must be as sure of their facts and the truth as is possible, before they dip their ‘stingers into honey’.

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