Harvey Pekar has made a name for himself writing American Splendor, an autobiographical comic that has won critical acclaim from all corners of the literary world. So Macedonia will come as quite a shock to Pekar fans – it’s not autobiographical (though he does have a very short cameo) and most of it is set in, you guessed it, eastern Europe.
Instead, Pekar has created an interesting piece of work, part biography, part travelogue, part academic study. It’s based on the research of Heather Roberson, the main character in the story, who Pekar met while promoting the American Splendor movie. Roberson traveled to Macedonia as part of her research for a peace studies course, undertaken while at university.
After sharing a lunch table with a professor, Heather Roberson decides to investigate the absence of a war in Macedonia, around the time of the Bosnian conflict, as an example of when the world’s governments may have successfully intervened and stopped a civil war from breaking out. Despite their being an absence of books on the subject – histories are generally written about wars, not times when wars are avoided – she develops an overview of the situation, but feels she ought to go to Macedonia and spend a month there herself in order to truly attempt to understand the nature of the region. Once on her travels, Heather soon realises that her understanding, based on her external view of Balkan history, is fundamentally flawed.
Part of the charm of the book is in following this bright American student through the investigations she initiates during her trip, both with the local academics and people in authority, and with people she meets in hotels, taxis and on the street. She develops an understanding that civil wars aren’t about the intervention of international agencies, but the people who live in a country, their history and their relationships with one another.
However, the situation in Macedonia is deeply complex, and despite his best efforts to make the subject matter accessible, Pekar is forced to resort to lengthy and complicated arguments and discussions to get Roberson’s points across. He attempts to lighten the load by building much of the text into speech bubbles and making it conversational, but ultimately it struggles to come across as anything other than written thesis.
What does work is the art though. Piskor is a great choice of artist, with an under-complicated but stylish, crisp feel, that helps carry the density of the words. The layouts are regular and regimented, which also helps a lot, though it isn’t quite enough to cut through the density of much of Pekar’s dialogue.
Ultimately, the academic feel of the book, while making it a genuinely interesting read, is difficult to engage with. The travelogue element is more the Pekar we’ve come to love, with some stunning vignettes ranging from arguments with hoteliers to discussions about pet cats. But it’s interspersed with dense political discussion, often recreated as interviews Roberson conducted, but also as meal-time discussions which are necessarily written to get a point across, but as a result fail to ring true as the kinds of things that people might actually say to one another. While it serves the purpose of externalising the academic crux of the book, it makes a difficult contrast with the more charming elements of the book that appear when Roberson isn’t seen vocalising her thesis. As a result, the book falls between two stools – is it a thesis on the recent history of Macedonia or the travelogue of a bright, young, open-minded American in Europe? In fact it’s both, but Pekar ultimately fails to gel the two together leaving a complex read that doesn’t particularly excel at either.
Other books by Harvey Pekar: