Spring Rain is bestselling author and cartoonist Andy Warner‘s graphic memoir of a semester he spent in Beirut as a 21-year-old college student studying Lebanese literature. It was 2005 – the same year mass protests led to that country’s ‘Cedar Revolution’, toppling its pro-Syrian government.
Warner sounds needlessly apologetic about the book in his afterword, charting its development in fits and spurts over the past 15 years. He need not be: sometimes distance offers one a much clearer vantage on the events of one’s youth, and that is certainly the case here. What results is a superior graphic memoir that is as entertaining as it is informative and insightful.
As a book, Spring Rain is superior to other graphic memoirs precisely because of its diverse plot threads. Warner had a lot going on during his time in Lebanon. He was dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, and slowly gaining the emotional maturity to recognize how important the relationship had been to him. He experiments with his sexuality, with both men and women. He struggles with serious mental health problems and a family history of bipolar disorder.
Oh, and then there’s also the matter of Lebanon’s government collapsing in the face of the Cedar Revolution, sparked by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and local celebrity. As Warner struggles with his personal demons, the country erupts into revolution around him.
Many authors would struggle to form a coherent narrative out of so many disparate plot threads. But Warner makes it work, weaving them together to forge a realistic and compelling portrait of a young American struggling to find their path while living abroad in a country undergoing revolutionary political change. There’s a humility to his writing, an acknowledgement in retrospect of his own emotional immaturity, his self-centredness, his problematic positioning as an American whose country was meddling in another country’s politics to dire effect.
What’s interesting is how much more vibrant a picture this technique paints of Beirut, compared to other short travelogue-style memoirs that approach their subject matter more directly. By focusing on his personal struggles, and by recounting his regular weekly activities as an American student abroad, the author is able to offer a more diverse portrayal of the country in which he lived.
Largely by chance, Warner wound up hanging out with a mostly gay circle of Lebanese and international students. The intense partying they engaged in – raves, orgies, pervasive drug use – is likely at odds with many people’s image of the Middle East. But that’s precisely why it’s such a compelling image – it’s real, it grasps at the broad diversity of the country (as seen through foreign eyes). This style of narrative is evocative of those visual puzzles that require the viewer to look beyond the image in front of them, letting their eyes relax into an indirect gaze, in order for the hidden picture to reveal itself.
Had Warner tried to write a more direct chronicle of the protest movement, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well. It’s difficult to put together an impartial and holistic picture of any political movement, and he would have been at pains to put himself in that narrative since he didn’t even really participate in the protests. Instead, he provides a much more useful and unabashedly partial portrayal of those months, revealing what it was like to live through them on the ground as an outsider struggling to find something to be a part of. Spring Rain is more of a psychological graphic memoir than a political one or a travelogue, and as such Warner treats his subject matter superbly.
“Memory is tricky business,” he writes. “The things you remember often are the most vivid. Their neural paths are worn deep in your brain. They’re also the most treacherous. Each time you recall a memory, it’s rewritten the moment you think of it. It is that rewriting that you remember the next time. A copy of a copy of a copy. Inconsistencies creep in, creating new ways through the story or obscuring older roads.”
Warner does a good job of explicating some of Lebanon’s complex politics and history as he goes. Because he hung out with both Lebanese and international students, he’s able to portray political and historical struggles as seen through both the Lebanese and the foreign lens, and the debates in which his fellow students engage help to reveal the contradictions and conflicts between these differing vantages.
As well as being a psychological memoir about memory and mental health, there is a travelogue aspect to the book. His immersion in historic Beirut is complemented by occasional trips outside the city to explore other parts of the beautiful country. Warner’s artwork offers a superb depiction of these places, from the labyrinthine streets of ancient Beirut to the stark, gorgeous landscape of deserts, lush mountain valleys and cedar forests. There’s even a poignant visit to beautiful, pre-civil war Syria. Yet Beirut is the book’s main focus, and the reader gets a real sense of a Lebanon struggling to find its own identity as a small cosmopolitan nation in a world riven by political, ethnic, and religious conflicts.
Spring Rain is an excellent example of graphic memoir done right. It’s a superb portrayal not just of a vibrant and beautiful country and the vicissitudes of politics, but also an apt exposition of the vagaries of mind and memory.