Paying the Land by Joe Sacco review – a triumph of empathy

Aida Edemariam

There is a moment, in his 2003 collection Notes from a Defeatist, when you can see Joe Sacco finding out exactly what he was meant to do. The pieces have been competent enough so far – satires of office grunts and nerdy librarians, of a “cartoon genius” trying not very hard not to sell out; exercises in a familiar kind of knowing autobiographical bathos. And then he interviews his mother.

Carmen Sacco grew up in Malta, and was a child when Mussolini went to war in Abyssinia, bombing the highlands and gassing civilians; the Maltese, fully expecting to be next, bought gas masks and drilled for raids. In the event, bombing began five years later; Joe, who was born in Malta but grew up in Australia, tells his mother’s story from her point of view. In one series of drawings, Carmen, walking home from school, is caught alone on a country road, and strafed by a Messerschmitt; the reader is down on the ground with her, next to the sole of her shoe, looking past her torso, past her head, up to the empty sky above the empty road – empty, that is, except for the plane, turning to come back. It is a triumph of empathy, of detail, of perspective.

Sacco went on, of course, to draw years’ and books’-worth of nightmares: Palestine, Safe Area Goražde, The Fixer (also about Bosnia), Footnotes in Gaza, stories of refugees trying to reach Malta, or about the war in Iraq; a 24ft, wordless depiction of the first day of the battle of the Somme. His comics have earned him comparisons to Hogarth, Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb; he himself includes among his influences Goya and Breughel, the Orwell of Animal Farm, Voltaire’s Candide, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but these are so present he almost doesn’t need to say it.

Paying the Land could not, at first glance, be more different. The first page is a serene view of a man and his dogs gazing out on to snowy, moonlit woods. The next pages are busier, but also pastoral – a baby, a boat, people hunting and fishing, an elderly man smoking a pipe. Sacco, who pays attention to every face, every squelch of mud or crumpled cigarette packet, has always had the most astonishing sense of place. You can smell rock and pine and snow, feel it in your bones. The bucolic scene turns out to be the reconstructed childhood of Paul Andrew, a chief of the Shúhtaot’ine, or Mountain Dene, and in the visual layering of that memory with his much less idyllic present is the story of Canada – told, as Edward Said put it in his introduction to Palestine, from the point of view of “history’s losers”.

When Charles II handed what is now the Northwest Territories over to the Hudson’s Bay Company, no one thought to tell the Metis and the Dene. Canadian fur clothed the fashionable of Europe and made the company rich, but, apart from the small matter of land ownership, the arrangement was mutually beneficial. Then in the late 1800s oil was found, and gold, and “the Dominion extended its control not by the slaughter that defined the white race south of the national border, but clinically, methodically, and administratively – through treaties.” These treaties required the Dene and Metis to “cede, release, surrender and yield … their rights, title, privileges … for $5 a year, for some bullets and fishnets”, a baffling exchange until one considers the Dene attitude to land, which is that it cannot be owned. The exploitation has continued in various forms ever since, as Sacco – who draws himself into his cartoons as a blank-spectacled questioner – knows: “After all, what’s the difference between me and an oil company? We’ve both come to extract something.”

And he’s well aware the pain here runs deep. “Dear Reader,” he writes, about 100 pages in, in small squares floating above stony mountains, “something has been circling above these stories, in fact, haunting this entire project. Perhaps I should have mentioned it before …” And then the pages go whiter still, tall panels forming a blank triptych above a rocky riverbed, as a tiny plane banks and enters, page-right, to land. When it takes off, Paul Andrew, then a child of eight, has gone with it. For 120 years, until the mid-1990s, indigenous children were taken from their families to residential boarding schools run for the government by Catholic nuns. Their heads were shaved, and they became numbers rather than names; the aim was to educate the “Indian” out of them.

Sacco might have left AK47s and mortar shells behind him, but this is war nonetheless; an internal war, where the invisible threads that hold a human together – self-worth, community, language, even the ability to love – are deliberately cut away. When the children returned they could no longer communicate with their grandparents. The emphasis on authority had atrophied any sense of independence and teamwork. Many had been physically and sexually abused. (Survivors of English boarding schools will be familiar with some of the psychological effects, the only difference being the latter schools were for the ruling class, and gave the illusion of choice.) In Canada, the Northwest Territories are second only to Nunavut in their rates of sexual abuse (five times the average), family violence (eight times), rates of suicide, and alcohol abuse: Sacco quotes a coroner who says 97% of the deaths he investigates are alcohol-related; adults and even some children drink not socially but deliberately, to black out.

The question that drives Paying the Land is what do you do? How do you break the dependencies – on oil and natural gas (the ninth largest reserves in the world), on alcohol, on welfare, on an external definition of who you are? Straight compensation and apology is a minimum, and a truth and reconciliation process admitted cultural genocide in 2015, but an influx of cash can be a death sentence to a serious alcoholic. And how do you deal with inevitable change? Nostalgia is no answer; “People have to eat. They need roads and schools,” as one chief, who would dearly like to return his people to subsistence on the land, eventually has to admit. The eternal question about climate change and “progress” applies here too – what is the moral position of denying people things you have already enjoyed yourself, in order to fix the damage that was no fault of theirs? Again and again Sacco finds that “it’s more complicated than that”.

There isn’t quite the level of immersion here as there has been in previous books, when Sacco lived with ordinary Bosnians and Palestinians; he doesn’t manage to stay with any Dene, and his interviewees are mostly leaders of one stripe or another, which sometimes lends a talking-heads, outside-in quality to the oral history. It isn’t always easy to keep track of who’s who, which I suspect, given the odd prod – “you remember him” – is a problem he’s aware of. Previous books made me uncomfortable about his portrayal of women – “silly girls” in Gorazde, or the drunks who “offered me the town slut”; there are more women here than usual, and he is alert to the ways in which Dene gender politics (now interestingly at odds with their own history, when everyone was required to be equally capable, at everything) gets in the way of their female leaders. But I think he could have gone further, and talked to more women, especially about their day to day challenges; done what he did with his mother, perhaps, and in so doing made the experience more immediate.

Related: Joe Sacco | interview

Paying the Land is still a powerful piece of work, however, and in this time of pandemic and race protests Sacco’s concern with the decimation caused by injustice and internalised ideas of inferiority; with how the system is “built for capitalism to succeed, not humans”, resonates even more than it already would have. And over it all, of course, is the issue of our relationship to nature. When you take something from the land, when you kill a moose, or fell a tree, an elderly Dene tells Sacco, you “pray … and you give it something … a bullet, perhaps, water, tobacco, tea”. What is the worldview, Sacco asks, after he is proudly shown the ingenious ways in which oil companies corral the byproducts of fracking, “of a people who mumble no thanks or prayers, who take what they want from the land, and pay it back in arsenic?”

• Paying the Land is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.