Kampung Boy
by Lat (First Second, 2006)

Most graphic bios and autobiographies are intriguing, if angst-ridden works of art. What a pleasure it is to read an account of life in a small town that doesn't have a thing to do with rape, incest, the quest for sexual identity, drug addiction or any of the Grimm's Fairy Tale kinds of darkness that are the stock in trade of most graphic stories and autobiographies (must be a Gen X thing).

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that it's nice to be completely involved in a story that doesn't go anywhere near vampires, mutants, murder, politics, teenage angst and/or existentialism.

This pleasant, simply written but by no means simple autobiography is a tale of life in a Malaysian kampung, as told by Lat, one of Malaysia's most prominent artists. Since "kampung" means small town, this book's title literally means "small town boy." The images it calls up are universal, and yet so much of it is unique. Nostalgia is the book's primary emotion. Lat could be any boy in any town in the world. The everyday details of Muslim life in a non-Arab world, in the middle of Perak, a tin-mining district, are detailed with a loving and kind hand. The artwork is fun and well suited to the text. Both tell a lot with a little; the choice of words is sparse but poetic, and the highly detailed art simple but dense, as lush and exotic as the rubber forests that surround his home.

Like the kampung itself, the story is humble but beautiful. Lat's easygoing retelling of the events that mark his procession from child to young man -- a hair-shaving ceremony, learning how to fish, the first day of school, his circumcision -- make the unknown seem as familiar as a backyard barbeque. Let's face it: all family gatherings are pretty much the same. Life is all about climbing trees, fishing, harvesting rubber from trees and living a quiet but very full existence. While KB covers little more than the daily events of Lat's life until the day he leaves for a public boarding school, there is a deep sense of reverence for everyday existence that permeates this thoroughly enjoyable book. KB is obviously the first installment of what will be a series that is off to a captivating start.

review by
Mary Harvey

5 April 2008

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