Amidst the crowds of New York, a photojournalist takes a vow of silence in this Italian graphic novel.
We accept photographs as proof. Something happened, we were there, and this captured moment is evidence. But photos are as fallible as memory, changing their language according to perspective. This isn’t to say that a memory – or an image of one – is untrue. Truth is too complicated for that.
With the close of the shutter a camera splits the world, making a new one that looks the same but has a slightly different history. Like that myth about cutting an earthworm in half to make a second, a photo creates another world with altered conversations and stories that develop a new impression of the past that we take into the future.
The Sound of the World by Heart feels like a story remembered. Despite the protagonist and second narrator having different names, professions, lives from the creator, Italian artist Giacomo Bevilacqua, the book tells a convincing reality until its final pages. Then it becomes something else.
Sam is a photojournalist on a two-month assignment in New York City, where his editor has tasked him with getting over a past relationship by producing his first written article in a decade. Crowded by the busy isolation of New Yorkers on the go, or just drowning in his own loneliness, he sets himself a challenge, a social experiment with no predicted results. Following a strict set of rules to keep it interesting, Sam will spend sixty-two days in the city without communicating verbally with any other human being.
New York has something of a reputation as a lonely place, as documented recently in an incredible investigation of art and artists by Olivia Laing, but its presence as a landmark of culture and setting for millions of stories, real and imagined, makes it a magical one as well. As familiar as home to people across the world that have never been there, New York is presented in Sound as the sympathetic antagonist in Sam’s quest for something beyond communication.
Having organised himself into a rhythm of comfortable melancholy, Sam’s challenge provokes the city into movements of its own. Viewing some of his developed photos midway through November, about a quarter of the way through his self-imposed isolation, Sam finds a selection of photos that he doesn’t remember taking. Collected from various excursions around Manhattan, they all feature the same oddity: a woman. Her red hair shining bright against a black and white landscape.
Although the book is a work of fiction, Bevilacqua based it in his own memories of staying in New York, and as such the location takes on a nostalgic filter that Sam adopts as his present reality. It’s the sort of story that would be wasted in any other medium and is all the more poignant for its composition. Many of the panels are wide – several with pages to themselves against solid black or white, resembling photographs stuck into an album – and include detailed backdrops of the city asserting its presence.
Bevilacqua plays with colour and form to draw the reader’s eye and piece Sam’s memories together. Showing what is ostensibly a photograph from different perspectives by zooming in, popping a colour, or removing the background entirely, he explores how we see an image as shapes and contexts; the pieces and the whole.
In the original Italian, the book is called Il Suono del Mondo a Memoria, “the sound of the world in memory”. This fits better, finding symmetry with the themes, which sit in the gutter between the story in pictures and its narration.
Half of the book is narrated in the pale blue bubbles that quote extracts of Sam’s future article. The technique offers us different levels of memory, the way hindsight allows Sam to remember remembering, and the assorted ways the experience changes his future. We also get a handy glimpse of Sam as both writer and photographer, and it’s satisfying to witness a character who is presented as talented proving that it’s true. The costs involved for the premise to be likely are justified to even the most cynical reader.
The rest of the narration, in a contrasting yellow, is from an unseen narrator who professes that everything Sam says in his story is true before preceding with their own version of events from their separate memory. As captions to Sam’s adventures, they take it in turns to describe his compulsive habits and the routine that promises discovery but invites distance.
Through this second person’s narrative the reader is invited to witness and understand that the gaps and adjustments of a memory are almost irrelevant in comparison to why those gaps are formed in the first place. The results are unexpected, but play out naturally, as if we already knew it was coming but somehow forgot.