The book talks about the time when the railways were preparing to phase out steam engines
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Cultural introduction via graphic novel isn't new. Over half a century ago, Hergé and his industrious researchers were already drawing surprisingly insightful portrayals of diverse parts of the world in the Tintin comics. Some, like the ones set in a Middle East before its transformation through oil wealth, offer wonderful snapshots of a world on the cusp of almost incomprehensible change.
Such change is not the least of the big themes that an increasingly ambitious (and largely successful) genre has treated in the past three decades of its ascendancy. When the focus is on societies that — for reasons of culture or geography — are largely inaccessible to most outsiders, they can be staggeringly good; as with Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.
Nicholas Wild's Kabul Disco (Harper Collins, Rs 325) is an account of a young French graphic artist's life as he works for a development agency in Afghanistan. The locals he encounters can be forgiven their weary cynicism — their land has seen too many would-be change agents come and go. Despite this, their warmth and slim hopes for a better future continue to encourage and even enchant those who work there. Wild captures this well in the passages where his protagonist does interact with local Afghans; the one where a threatening-looking local merely wants to teach the clueless Frenchman how to wear a pakul without looking like a fool is wonderful.
In a different way, so are the panels that show how easily street scenes in Kabul segue from domestic to frightening, as well as the visuals of burnt-out Soviet military hardware. As a metaphor for an earlier, doomed intervention, it's hard to beat. Yet Kabul Disco possibly slips because there isn't enough of this Afghanistan. In fact, it is as a send-up that it works best. Wild captures the pretentious, privileged, vaguely Eurotrash existence of the professional expat do-gooder with a suitably wicked eye. All the tropes are there; the protected lifestyles, the local "utility men", the SUVs, the suspiciously connected American and, of course, the expat party scene. If only there were a little more Kabul in Kabul Disco.
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