That could be me. Except I suppose maybe it couldn’t. The man in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is fleeing something bad, and I didn’t. He has to leave his family and his country. I chose to.
But the feeling of being an outsider in a strange place is something we share, even though I didn’t end up in a place anywhere near as strange as where Shaun’s man goes. But to continue on the theme from Hidden, people really don’t choose to go somewhere else when it’s so difficult and so different.
Shaun has done something very clever by making the place his man ends up in unlike anything real. If it had been America, say – and it certainly looks a little like America – then many of us would fall into the trap that says the man is really lucky to end up somewhere like that. Now we can all look at the weird, and occasionally wonderful, world the man reaches at the end of his long and hard journey, and feel insecure along with him.
I suppose many of us have gone on holiday some place where we don’t speak (enough of) the language, and we haven’t the faintest idea of what to buy to eat. Or where, or how. We don’t know what that thing on the plate is. We don’t know how to get to where we are going. The signs are all in an unrecognisable language. Anything which you’d think would be ordinary and manageable isn’t.
The logical thing is to assume the man is leaving a European regime that is bad. And he ends up in America. Perhaps. He reminds me of someone. I can only think it’s someone in a film, because I feel I know more about him than you find out from the book. He is small and quiet and polite. He has few needs, other than somewhere to sleep, something to eat, and a means of making money to pay for those things. And to send money home, so that his wife and daughter can come after him to the new country.
By making his story so neutral, Shaun manages to cover the experiences of countless refugees as well as economical migrants.
The pictures are among the most wonderful, if scary, that I have seen. I believe that Shaun spent years on this book, which I can easily understand. Except perhaps how it’s possible to live and work so long with a vision like this. Everything about the book is beautiful. The cover. Inside the covers. The ribbon. Everything.
It’s one of the most touching books I’ve never read.