Not since Jose Luis Borges’s Manual de zoología fantástica, a dictionary of 120 mythical beasts meant to be “dipped into” and read “randomly, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope,” have I picked up such an intriguing and beautiful collection as Monster Portraits by brother-sister, artist-author, extraordinaire collaborators, Del and Sofia Samatar. The fact that Borges was not a Somali-American growing up in the 1980s makes all the difference between the two works. Style, structure, and intention draws parallels, but the narrative of “other,” of foreign, of nomad, adds a profound political and emotional layer.
“The Perfect Traveler” starts the journey of 26 portraits:
There is a Perfect Traveler. He has been running for millennia, light and tireless. In every joint of his body he wears the sign of the wind.
He is the forward march. Small sleds and stars appear in his wake. Of those he brushes in passing it is said: “At least she didn’t suffer.”
This section concludes with: “The Perfect Traveler has no friend. / Like Ecstasy, he’s always on the run.” Throughout this catalogue, Sofia Samatar’s prose poetry darts and weaves magic, skipping through time and culture with the deftness of all great flash-fictioneers.
Sparse images combine to create a mythical quest. As children, they watch the cheesy TV show Knight Rider with a camel bell hanging on the wall. Hooves meet acorns and create scenes. Parasites and claws meet Octavia Butler. “The Sexy Zebra” is the depiction of women in comic books and translated into “wana wowowo” which means nice ass and “the way you look at yourself when you’re buying jeans.” In “The Clan of The Claw,” Aristotle, Aquinas, Alan Turing, Walter Benjamin, Sarah Baartman, and Mariam Yahia Ibrahim (if you don’t know any of these names, Google them!) are seamlessly woven into a sequence about getting a cup of coffee and how “the monster destroys the integrity of the social/political body.” Not only an ironic display of erudition, part travel log, part dream, the text strikes political chords while entertaining.
Monster Portraits is about force fitting a rainbow of possibility into an American binary code: black and white, foreign and domestic, rich and poor. In “The Scribes,” a plethora of emotion is contained and conveyed:
The Scribes have evolved for low temperatures. Their skin may be blue or green.
Dream of a language that does not suffer.
Sometime I pick up a really good book and hate it because I feel like the writer didn’t work hard enough. Is this an evil emotion?
Sometimes a winter rain strides among the Scribes and darkens their open mouths. Snow collects on their eyelids, as if they were gargoyles.
Sometimes I think work is the answer and sometimes I think it’s the enemy. To summarize: an unhappy relationship with labor.
Clearly the Samatars worked hard on this book. Each illustration is worthy of a tattoo. There is not an extraneous line. Each image turns the page. The only critique: like life, it’s too damned short. With all the monsters we encounter daily, this book could be dictionary length, hard cover, and kept eternally on the bedside table.
Monster Portraits is so good: “I have been ruined by this book, I think” (“Everyday Monsters”).