By Emir Pasanovic
In my last text, I mentioned in a few places how beautiful Croatia’s coast is, but how can I portray how much the sea really shapes the lives of many continentals like myself who only get to go there once, maybe twice a year for our vacations? Now I don’t really have to, because there is The Healing Island.
It’s no surprise that for my first instalment of my Summer Reading reviews I decided to tackle the work of a good friend. Also, I miss the sea. I miss the time when I could go there for weeks instead of just days and reboot my life. After a week at sea, when you come back home, you kept wondering why nothing has changed, why all things still look and feel the same when you don’t feel the same. It was marvelous.
Maybe I’m idolizing it a bit, but after the author of the Healing Island, Kostja Ribnik, returned home from one of these vacations, he wrote and drew this graphic novel, which portrays both the lives of inhabitants of an island in Croatia, and the turning points in the protagonist’s life. Steinbock comes to an isolated island to buy an antique car, and then due to extraordinary circumstances treads on a path not commonly tread on. Steinbock’s island is based on a real place, the Croatian island of Pag, but in Kostja’s book Pag becomes a place where miracles happen around every bend, and detailed maps are there only to confuse and confound the foreigners, i.e. anyone who hasn’t lived on the island for a long time.
This is why Steinbock spends most of the book feeling and being lost, truly surrendering to the island. Kostja’s art portrays how his passivity and we could say, his depression transforms in the face of people who are genuinely happy and who have found their place in life, their calling so to speak. What the graphic novel does really well is counter Steinbock’s inner monologues and descriptions of his life back in Vienna with images that portray the simple and meaningful beauty of the Healing Island, which “brings the best out of people”. Everybody knows everybody else there and everybody is known for a certain set of skills and services they provide.
Osman is a mechanic and trader, Srđan is a doctor, nana Agatha makes cheese and alcoholic drinks, even Steinbock immediately becomes known as the poet. But the imagery is often meant to shock the readers out of their complacency, just as it shocks Steinbock: readers will immerse themselves in a world that is in equal parts our protagonist’s hallucinations and real places the author has visited in Pag. Steinbock’s (or Kostja’s) poetry further makes this distinction evident: the return to himself (to his old life in Vienna) will mean just depression and nothingness to Steinbock, while the newly found obsessions mean life and rebirth. Choosing not to go back is not a mistake (because mistakes don’t exist): instead, it is a way to uncover the hidden gallery, open the gift of life and poetry.
With a few twists and turns that will surprise you, the book is well worth reading and exploring. I can say with ease that this is one of the best Bosnian comics ever produced, and in such a small country of only 3.5 million people, it is rare to see such maturity of style and expression, and also productiveness that Kostja continues to exhibit.
If my review should urge you to spend £5 or just click through to read the 25-page preview, and if you end up loving Kostja’s work so much so that you look for more in the future (or for more similar books on Modesty Comics), then leave a comment or a link to your own review on one of my social network profiles.