Kaspar

[26 March 2009]

By Ian Chant

Canadian filmmaker, artist and comic creator Diane Obomsawin’s first work to be translated into English is Kaspar, a slim volume exploring a strange story of Kaspar Hauser, the prototypical feral child. The author tells the tale from Hauser’s own point of view, imbuing both subject and story with the guileless, unaffected tone of a children’s fable, albeit one punctuated by neglect, isolation, and mystery only to culminate in a violent death that still remains shrouded in mystery nearly two centuries later.

The story of Kaspar Hauser has fascinated, frustrated and bemused researchers and historians since it began in the early nineteenth century. Hauser, the story goes, was raised in captivity and total isolation until the age of seventeen by a shadowy figure now lost to the history. Food and water were left for him while he slept. He saw his captor rarely; the outside of his dungeon-like home, never. After being taught some rudimentary language, Hauser was suddenly and inexplicably released by his captor/benefactor into the world, a fully grown foundling child, left to his own devices in the streets of Nuremberg. His mystery made him the toast of the continent for a brief time, a sight to see for a wide variety of visiting nobles and notables. But it was his strange death just a few years later that secured his story a place in the annals of the obscure and bizarre.

Kaspar portrays Hauser’s story in simple but expressive line drawings and, where possible, frames the story in his own words, otherwise sticking to spare and charming verbiage effortlessly portraying what the artist obviously sees as the ingenuous nature of her subject.

Obomsawin’s Kaspar is filled with awe at the natural world. He is fascinated by sprouting bean seeds and fruit bearing trees. He struggles valiantly with perspective, equally baffled by the moon and the horizon. He is at once sadly and adorably naïve to the nature of snow. Meanwhile, these vivid emotions are juxtaposed with the minimalist, black and white line work of the book’s illustration, forcing readers to fully engage with the work to see things as Hauser does, as if seeing all the world has to offer for the first time.

In this latest imagining of a tale that has been explored by artists from Werner Herzog to Harlan Ellison, Hauser is distinctly childlike, for all the cuteness and inevitable petulance that quality entails. Obomsawin’s interpretation expertly communicates the wonder and terror of a near adult, suddenly introduced to the world in all its beauty and horror for the first time.

By leaving the narration of the tale to the character of Kaspar, Obomsawin crafts a strangely charming account of the legend that has grown up around this singular figure. But Obomsawin seems so enamored with the admittedly fascinating mélange of oral history, legend and apocrypha that she barely touches on the most disappointing facet of Hauser’s tale, which is that much of it was almost certainly pure invention. Most modern historians, and more notably many of Hauser’s contemporaries, including characters who factor largely in Kaspar, believed that Hauser was not a feral child at all, but a vain and compulsive liar whose most notable feat was cleverly manipulating a stunning cadre of doctors, judges and minor nobles with considerable aplomb.

But if Obomsawin is less than harsh to Hauser, who may well have accidentally taken his own life in a bid to regain his place in the continental spotlight, neither does she fall entirely under the spell of his tale. She glances over outlandish claims that Hauser may have been the true heir to Germany’s House of Baden, and skillfully channels his growing irritability when he finds himself employed as a court clerk.

Perhaps more importantly, she explores the lives of those who took Hauser in, and the salon culture that found him such a miraculous and fascinating blank slate for their own notions. And now, in presenting her own interpretation of the story, the author has brought to the fore Hauser’s most intriguing and attractive quality – his presence as a near perfect tabula rasa, fitting any interpretation with equal ease and grace.

The story of Kaspar that Diane Obomsawin wants to tell is the one she wants to believe, and no less valid than any other at this juncture. And while the real identity of the boy known as Kaspar Hauser is probably lost to time, in her endearing portrait of this cryptic figure, Obomsawin succeeds in bringing readers closer to understanding of what he meant.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/72275-kaspar/