Gebe (aka Georges Blondeaux) was a fixture in the French press for the better part of fifty years. Across a long and quietly distinguished career he was an author, screenwriter and dramatist and was closely associated with Charlie Hebdo until his death in 2004. Letters to Survivors was first published in 1981 and is available now for the first time translated into English, and it's a sharp example imaginable of his bleak (often gallows) humour, his razor-sharp satirical edge and his ability to dismantle the fads and mores of modern life in a handful of blunt images and well-chosen far from bon mots. At a time when the nuclear disarmament treaty between the US and Russia is crumbling into dust, the arrival of Letters to Survivors could barely be more timely and its message never more apposite.
In a blasted apocalyptic landscape riven by the nuclear war, a hazmat-suited bicycling postman delivers the mail - some things are immune even to thermonuclear energy, it seems - by reading its contents aloud down a vent leading into a bunker in which cowers a tired, beaten family unit. The anonymous letters initially remind the family of better, brighter days, their prosperous past life in a pre-nuclear war time. But soon the letters become strange stories, morality tales from a life long gone, each one delivering a poignant (if dark-hearted) story from the life they once knew, reminding them (and us) of the irrelevance in a blasted world of the old order where work overrides passion and where everyone wants a better life than everyone else.
Gebe’s pointedly monochrome illustrations (the ‘story’, such as it is, set in a colourless world bleached of life and colour by the bomb) are both striking and disturbing, the blunt and often mannered text chronicling the family’s reactions to the mailman’s readings which alternately goad and anger them and yet offer a sliver of hope for life after the end of the world. Indeed, the very end of the book suggests a more positive outlook for humanity after the destruction with the revelation that the postman himself is part of something bigger, something greater, something more optimistic.
Letters to Survivors will occupy little more than fifteen minutes of your time and yet its stark illustrations, quirky stories-within-a-story and its succinct critique of contemporary life - as worryingly relevant today as it was in 1981 - will stay with you for some time and possibly even haunt you with the uncomfortable realisation that we’ve come so far and yet learned so little.
LETTERS TO SURVIVORS / AUTHOR: GEBE (GEORGES BLONDEAUX) / PUBLISHER: NEW YORK REVIEW COMICS / RELEASE DATE: 19TH FEBRUARY