Limón is a Costa Rican district made up of a mix of jungles, mountains and paradisiacal beaches. Now home to the country’s main commercial (and tourist) port, it holds the highest percentage of protected land, an extensive variety of flora and fauna, and a blend of cultures from around the world. But what were Limón and its inhabitants like in the 1940s and 1950s? He tells us about it Edo BrenesCosta Rican artist author for Bao Publishing from Postcards from Limónhis second graphic novel after Lobster heavenpublished by Oblomov with the name Edward Brends.
Ramiro, the author’s alter ego, returns from England to Costa Rica. In addition to seeing his parents and relatives again, his aim is to reconstruct the history of the family, originally from Limónto make a book out of it. To welcome him, together with the traditional dishes, there is in fact a box of old photographs: loose images or collected in albums that trigger the memory of aunts, cousins and friends. Before the return flight, Ramiro tries to interview as many people as possible, who are always willing to remember following the inspiration of the images. From their stories, the first of which dates back to 1937, a different world emerges, inevitably anachronistic but fascinating: a Limón in which bicycles were the only means of transport and in the city there were only three cars, where some families had ten children and in the courtyards there were hens, goats and pigs. Soon the story focuses on three figures: grandmother Rosario, whose arrival in Limón in 1937 is described in the opening episode, grandfather Virgilio and her brother, uncle Osvaldo. Around the vicissitudes of these three characters Brenes builds Postcards from Limón and its final twist. Reviewing, savoring, listening to his native country and discovering a past he could not have imagined, has a profound impact on the life of Ramiro / Edo Brenes.
The book, divided into eight chapters as well as a prologue and epilogue, has a precise structure. The plot is mainly carried out by the photographs accompanied by the dialogues between Ramiro and the relative on duty. This narration in present time alternates with a series of flashbacks starring Rosario, Virgilio and Osvaldo, set in Limón between 1937 and 1957, with a leap to 1996 in the epilogue.
The tone of the story, net of a final point full of meanings, maintains the right degree of lightness given by some nice scenes, almost gags on a couple of occasions, which balance the inevitable nostalgia, and the sadness, linked to memories .
The long time frame of the story allows Brenes to develop different themes. From the implicit importance of keeping photographs as a viaticum for memory, to a type of child education based on simple and healthy principles. From the identification of the family as an almost sacred entity, to be taken care of at the cost of sacrificing something of oneself, to the sexism that is found in some of the characters. Interesting social aspects also emerge from these themes, such as for example the superstitions linked to the figure of Nieves, the most beautiful girl but cursed by all because she, less than thirty years old, is considered old, single and spinster.
The slow pace of the story – which to be followed often requires consultation of the family tree entered by the author, in order to clarify names and degrees of kinship – brings out the character, desires and nature of the three protagonists: Rosario is a proud and sweet woman, with clear ideas about what a family is; Osvaldo is balanced, respectful, a gentleman perhaps too shy; Virgilio, on the contrary, is irresponsible, selfish, extravagant, a football champion but an alcoholic, a womanizer ready to chase a woman to the ends of the earth. Over the years, the characteristics of the three settle down and develop, intersecting with feelings of friendship, love, resentment, despair, up to an ending that reassembles the mosaic of their lives by revealing a secret kept for decades.
Edo Brenes, also from a graphic point of view, puts photographs at the center of Postcards from Limón. In fact, the photos (and an 8 mm film towards the end) tell the story, portraying the protagonists as babies, children, adolescents, adults. The images also characterize the setting of the book, representing an airy, luxuriant Limón, with a Caribbean sea and the architecture of the 1950s, when the houses were “raised” to avoid flooding. The sign is stylized, characterized by a thin and soft line. The tables are sometimes full of small cartoons (4×4 grid), sometimes with full-page cartoons or a small number.
To underline some particular moods or create suspense, other pages host a single drawing immersed in white, such as page 187 which contains a revelation from Rosario. Still other tables have empty spaces within photographic sequences, as if to represent missing memories. The colours, used both in the present and in flashbacks with the exception of some photographs left in black and white, are soft, gentle and convey a verdant Costa Rica, which goes well with the pink, gray and yellow of the clothes.
A separate discussion should be made on the lettering which, sometimes thanks to the large number of cartoons contained in a single panel, is difficult to read especially when it is presented in italics.
Postcards from Limón it is a story that can be defined as more intimate than intimist. The deep involvement of the author – it could not be otherwise – is clear, but the passion with which he dedicates himself to family research, combined with the power of the memories triggered by the photos, are engaging. Although the progress of the story is sometimes affected by the repetitiveness of the narrative scheme, the final twist and the impact that the journey in general has on Brenes’ real life offer satisfaction to the reader.
The book also offers an interesting food for thought because in the age of selfies, Instagram stories and Facebook albums, it can happen that especially the younger ones forget about printed photographs. Without saying whether one or the other is better, there is a fact: digital photos are browsed on a screen by letting them pass quickly with a touch of the finger, they are deleted if there is a need for space, one does not even listen, often, what the one who is showing them tells about them. Habits that, with old paper photos, don’t exist. Photos on paper contain stories, fix moments of life, preserve a memory, arouse emotions. Hence, black and white photographs in unknown formats, with the date, place and perhaps a thought marked on the back, have found a comfortable accommodation in boxes and drawers, in our homes. Dozens, hundreds of preserved photos. Perhaps it is worthwhile, every now and then, to fish them out and find out what happens to our memory by looking at them.
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Postcards from Limón
272 pages, hardcover, colors – €23.00