Retelling the Telling

It is a telling moment to be sure. One in which Peter Milligan neatly gives away the carefully-constructed game woven thus far and later in the Enigma. He writes of the titular character:

He sits quite still for two days, forgetting to move.

Remembering the previous two days with such precision that it takes fully two days to remember them…

Remembering with such clarity that he forgets for a while that this is a memory and not the thing remembered…

Living again the moment when he took the Head in his arms…

When he took the Head in his arms and wondered…

Is this enough? Does this make it worthwhile? Does this make it less absurd?

With these actions can I recreate the dark and sensible walls of an abandoned well?

He took the Head in his arms and looked into the eyes, looking for recognition, meaning, something…

And seeing only madness and death…

Bashed his head open.

This scene, a single page, records the missing piece of narrative in the attack of the Head (one of many villains in the Enigma), on Michael Smith, not so much a protagonist as one of the many central perceptions through which the Enigma is filtered.

This is the third scene in the second chapter of the book, appearing neatly as an interruption between two hospital-bed scenes; the first recapitulating the injuries of Michael Smith, the second reoriented around his girlfriend, Sandra spending the last few moments of Michael Smith’s life holding his hand before she instructs the doctors for his euthanasia.

This narrative-by-recapitulation provides the final, missing segment in the story of the attack on Michael Smith; the detail of the Head’s defeat and reason behind Michael Smith’s consignment to his deathbed. What is more, there can be no doubt in readers’ minds that the most telling moment for Michael Smith in the story thus far – the moment of his murder at the hands of the Head – is a far more telling moment for his rescuer, the Enigma. Michael Smith fades to nothing more than a cipher. The full importance of this moment is delineated not only by a switch in the character framing the moment, but also by a switch in moment itself. There is a transition from action to reflection, just as there is a switch from Michael Smith to the Enigma, and back again.

Yet, as soon as these binaries of past-present, action-reflection, Michael Smith-the Enigma are established, they just as quickly come undone in readers’ grasps. Michael Smith has not been present in the narrative since the end of the previous chapter, when the Head first began his attack. In the first hospital scene, readers are lured into a skillful trap to assume that the conversation taking place – more a catalog of pleas from a jilted lover than a conversation – is taking place between Michael Smith and his girlfriend Sandra. The truth of course is something far more prosaic; the comatose Michael Smith has no speaking part at all, and appears only as a prop to a conversation between doctor and nurse. Only after this trap of narration has been sprung, is Sandra conducted to her lover’s bedside. In the second hospital scene, the still-comatose Michael Smith has no part at all, other than to provide backdrop to Sandra’s musings on their relationship while she waits to have his life terminated.

The Enigma for his part, has no speaking part at all. He has not spoken, nor even been identified in the opening chapter, except perhaps by intuition. In fact the Enigma will not utter a word until the end of the fourth chapter, and even then it will not be the Enigma speaking, but an excavated comic book character that provides the basis for the ‘real-life’ character hunted by Michael Smith and others. The ‘real-life’ Enigma pursued so heatedly by Michael Smith and others will not speak until two chapters hence when the first word he utters is ‘Perhaps’.

While the Enigma’s memories are his own, the act of his remembering certainly is not. As with every piece of narration in the Enigma, the narration of the Enigma’s remembering is subject to a third layer; an ever-present, all-knowing narrator who processes the narrative for readers. How disappointing then, that in the final analysis, the narrator is unable to narrate the final confrontation between lead characters the Enigma, Michael Smith, comic book writer Titus Bird and the arch-villain of the piece, the Enigma’s mother. In lieu of this most necessary narration, the narrator offers instead a retelling of the entire narrative thus far, claiming this as necessary since his auditors did not quite understand.

The very impetus that propels readers to, at first glance, receive the Enigma as a single, linear narration – clear but picaresque – belies the truth of the vast narrational web that readers are subject to. It seems almost as if, without the narrator, there would be not only no narrative, but no sequence of underlying events upon which the narrative is based. The narrator shapes not only the narrative, but the world around him also. This is a point I would like to return to later.

To turn once again to an earlier matter, Milligan offers a crucial piece of the Enigma by a framing device that removes his audience not once but twice. Firstly by the process of remembering, and secondly by the device of an omnipresent narrator. Milligan is able to conjoin, in secret linkage, questions of action (opposed with memory), of a present (opposed with an intrusive past), of Michael Smith dying (opposed with a similarly intrusive Enigma killing). What Milligan is able to achieve is not so much a clear, binaried opposition between the two poles, but more completely, he paints a map of the web-like intricacies of the interactions between these various poles. Michael Smith and the Enigma are not entirely disparate, it will require the rest of the novel to explain fully the intricacy of how they are related. The past is by no means unproblematic, but occupies fully an equal segment of the present to the point where possibly, a reader ‘forgets that this is a memory and not the thing remembered…’. And the Enigma for his part, is given to remembering a moment of reflection in the heat of action, just before he delivers the coup de grace.

For all his considerable skill, Milligan is not the first writer to explore the web of tensions between action and reflection, between past and present. In modern times, this experiment falls perhaps first to Polish-English writer, Joseph Conrad. We did not need a thinker the stature of Edward Said to point out that ‘Conrad’s purpose is to consider not only the so-called plot (which has usually taken place in the past), but also the varying degrees of obscurity, difficulty, and loneliness that inevitably linger on into the present… We think we have passed out of [the past], but the mere thought of that reconfirms its powers over us.’ Later in the same chapter of his book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Said continues to recall an image from near the end of T S Eliot’s ‘the Waste Land’. ‘[E]ach man in a prison thinks of the key that will free him and “Thinking of the key, each confirms his prison.”, writes Said, quoting Eliot. ‘The effect of the stories is to make solitude a universal.’, Said goes on to say.

Said then continues to argue that short fiction, by its very nature, operates essentially as the narrative of an eternal outcast. Through a series of reflections, Said is able to return to, in the final analysis, Conrad himself. ‘The real aim of the tale,’ he writes, ‘becomes that long, extended moment wherein past and present are brought together and allowed to interact. The past, requiring the illumination of slow reflection on the former thoughtless impulses, is exposed to the present; the present, demanding that “desired unrest” without which it must remain mute and paralyzed, is exposed to the past.

Said paints a compelling portrait of Conrad as a writer who unearths a secret cabal between the past and the present, on the one hand, and action and reflection on the other. In this regard, Conrad diverges from a writer like Marcel Proust, where a broader consideration is given to the plot. Proust’s political agenda, and perhaps more broadly the agenda of late nineteenth century realism, was the ideal representation of preexistent reality. Conrad by contrast, demonstrates the far more intricate and far more textured subtleties involved in representation. Representation itself, Conrad seems to suggest, is by its very nature a dubious undertaking. One fraught with not only the difficulties of the action mitigated by memory, but also with the difficulty of having to extricate oneself from an essentially alienating past that still threatens.

Neither Conrad, nor Proust for that matter, had at their disposal the simple technology of comics, choosing instead the media of the novel and the short story. Locked into a world represented merely by language, it requires an atypical act of genius, as we see with Conrad, to shuffle of the restricting belief that language is able to simply portray, without an attendant set of representational politics. It is here – with the introduction of a third layer to the framing device, that of a choice of different medium – that Milligan’s the Enigma provides a unique representation of the politics of representation.

I wish to focus my discussion, initially at least, on the two panels which appear first. Appear first is of course, something of a poor description. The first of six panels (appearing on the seventh page of the second chapter, or ‘episode’ as Milligan calls it, of the 1995 collected edition) not only forms the background upon which the remaining panels are layered, but also develops no clear border between its own murky shadows and the folds of the Enigma’s cloak in the final panel. Here space is folded in on itself, just as the narrative, action, memory and the past and present have been folded in on themselves. ‘In my beginning is my end. In succession,’ wrote Thomas Stearns Eliot in ‘East Coker’. In this way, just as the narrative forms a neat circuit, so too is the space of the page neatly isolated, visually, from the rest of the book.

The claustrophobia of the situation bears down upon reader and character alike. Duncan Fegredo’s clockwise tilt not only adds to this stifling atmosphere, but also produces a clear line of sight between the Enigma’s mask – lying discarded beside him – the Enigma himself – his eyelids clenched shut in the act of remembering – and the monstrously reptilian villain, the Head. Along this line of sight that plays out over three panels, we encounter in the first, two candles, appearing at the junction of two narrative lines of sight. The first and most apparent line is that visual narrative leading, by a worm’s-eye view up to the hunched form of the Enigma, his knees tucked up to his chest, and onwards to a skeleton figure, human or otherwise, appearing behind the Enigma. The second visual narrative, for which the candles are junction to, is the line of sight discussed earlier. Once placed in the context of this visual narrative that connects the Enigma’s props with his remembering, with his foe, the candles and their pale lighting become, through an act of closure, a representation of the Enigma himself. And their murky shadows, by virtue of the bleed found at the very bottom of this panel, become the Enigma’s cloak. Fegredo presents his audience with multiple entries to the problem of remembering.

It is of course the medium of comics itself that provides the most compelling representation of action opposed with reflection, and present opposed with past. Freed from the strictures of prose, Milligan and Fegredo are able to demonstrate clearly the subtle politics of representation.

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