Simon Spruyt, Le Tambour de la Moskova (2021)

This graphic novel was an impulse pick at the library. The cover was so aesthetically pleasing and a bit naive that it almost seemed like a children’s book, but indeed it is not! These two characterics are exactly what the author wants us to think about.

Vincent Bosse is a cute young man in a French village at the beginning of the 1800s. He’s serving at the church’s altar, which could save him from conscription, but after a dubious incident he is enlisted a soldier in Napoleon’s wars across Europe. His beauty helps him secure a rather safer position as a drummer for the troops that are merely cannon fodder. He marches to Moscow with his battalion and witnesses the unglamorous victories, with all the plundering and massacres that they entail, and the defeats with even more massacres. He’s merely a lost man in the middle of the turmoil, or so he wants us to think.

The story of the boy Vincent is actually told by an old man who looks like the ideal Russian grandfather on a farm with a large family. The story is told to the benefit of a rather distinguished guest whose identity we learn at the end in a rather unexpected twist. Now, it is clear that the boy may not have committed war crimes himself (or has he?), but we are led to question his reliability as a narrator and his innocence as a young man from early on.

Graphically the artist has used watercolors and colored pencils or pastels. Vincent’s face is white with cherry lips like a doll, and on the cover he almost looks like a saint in a Russian orthodox painted icon. Some images reminded me of the Nutcracker soldiers, but when the story goes into the bloodiest parts of the war campaigns, the images take a dream-like quality and much happens outside the frame.

This graphic novel won several prizes. The author is Dutch-speaking Belgian, but it’s a long, long way from the traditional Belgian comics like Tintin. If you want to see the artist at work and how he painted one of the pages of the book, you can see a short video here.

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