ALAN'S WAR is a triumph, though not necessarily for its surface qualities. As Tom Spurgeon noted in his review, this isn't really a World II book or even a typical biography. I saw it as a personal manifesto of sorts, a conversion narrative. Religious conversion narratives have certain common characteristics no matter the belief, and one of the cornerstones is that the narrative must be told and retold. Alan Cope, the subject of this book, went through a process of deconversion from standard religious practice but took many years to become "reborn", in his own words. The flashpoint of that rebirth was his dawning understanding that personal relationships were not only the foundations of life's meaning, but that he himself had held the key all along to his happiness. That key was personified in the way Cope had the uncanny ability to befriend so many different kinds of people. That ability was due in no small part to Cope's natural ability as a storyteller, someone that people wanted to talk to. His ability to spin interesting anecdotes was his way of applying flint to steel, sparking conversation that might lead to friendship.
Indeed, near the end of his life, that's precisely how Cope became friends with the artist Emmanuel Guibert. A chance meeting led to Cope regaling Guibert with a few stories, and Cope immediately realized what he had on his hands. Cope had spent his later years focusing on his memories, which were no doubt shaped by his new outlook on life. Guibert met Cope on an island off France and learned that Cope was an American who had left his country for good nearly fifty years earlier. Guibert offered to illustrate Cope's memories of World War II and the two men became close friends. There's a sense in which one can sense how much Cope loved telling his story because he was telling it to his friend. It's obvious that Cope regrets what he considers years of lost opportunities to stay close to many of his friends. That sadness pervades the last section of the book, along with anger towards older belief systems that he now views as hindrances. That sadness is tempered by the sense that Cope is finally getting it right with Guibert, giving even the most downbeat of sections a certain bounce.
Guibert's art in this book is simple but stunning. Certain sequences have a level of detail that's breathtaking, while much of his figure work is iconic but expressive. Guibert flips back and forth from pages with no backgrounds (even when climbing a mountain, which was a stark and interesting choice) to panoramic scenes of nature. The book has a washed-out appearance, perhaps mimicking an old book of photographs. That washed-out appearance is literal, this film clip demonstrates his technique. Using that waterjet device to etch the paper with an impression and applying ink to make images appear seemingly out of nowhere is an apt description of what Cope does.
Cope's skill as a storyteller does not lie in the ability to render the quotidian poignant. Rather, it's his ability to bring others to vivid life in his recollections that makes each tangent and detour so compulsively readable. He was naturally drawn to outsiders, individualists, iconoclasts and artists. Even when he was a fundamentalist Christian, he couldn't help but want to be around people who had a certain sensitivity. While they would certainly wind up having a significant influence on his beliefs, the mere fact that he was drawn to them showed that he wanted his beliefs to be challenged. The setting of war, one where an individual is supposed to mold one's identity in the image of his country, was a sharp contrast to the memories that were important to Cope. The way he disobeyed orders and made friends with a local German family and the warm affection he felt toward them was one of the most striking sequences in the book.
One thing that is unspoken but still felt was the way Cope evolved the further he got away from the U.S. and spent time abroad--both in distance and time. The kind of people he met and interacted with, especially as he got away from the army, reflected Cope's own growth and interests. He left America ostensibly because of what he felt was the pernicious influence of fundamentalism and a shallowness of thinking. While this conclusion was certainly valid, leaving America would seem to have concretized his own initial transformation. Abandoning his old country was a boldly symbolic way of abandoning a way of thinking and living that he had come to hate in himself, and this is what America became to him.
Two future volumes are planned, one about Cope's childhood in California and another about the friendship between Cope and Guibert. It's clear that these books are true labors of love for Guibert. The responsibility and opportunity to record and immortalize the stories of his friend are something he obviously takes very seriously, but Guibert never forgets to let each page breathe. There's nothing ponderous about these books, which owes as much to the playfulness of Guibert's style as it does to the breeziness of Cope's storytelling style. A subtle and dry wit pervades every story, making Cope and Guibert perfect complements and collaborators. ALAN'S WAR is a powerful testament to the way memory shapes identity and vice-versa and the way
friendship enriches lives and creates meaning.