Riad Sattouf’s parents met in the early 1970s in a cafeteria at the Sorbonne. They were both students: Clémentine from Brittany, and Abdel-Razak, on scholarship, from a village in Syria. Riad was born in 1978. With a young child and a newly minted doctorate in history, Abdel-Razak — whose stated aspiration for his son, to become “the Arab of the future,” lends Sattouf’s autobiographical series its name — moved his family to Libya for a teaching position before eventually landing in Syria, in the Sunni village of Ter Maaleh, where he had grown up. Sattouf’s graphic narratives of his country-and-culture-hopping childhood — of which, with THE ARAB OF THE FUTURE 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987 (Metropolitan/Holt, $27), we now have three volumes in an ongoing story — are translated from the French by Sam Taylor. They reveal the easy charm also displayed in Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” volumes, setting up a central, and often amusing, tension between a pictured child protagonist and that same person’s adult, retrospective narration. The reader easily shuttles back and forth between naïve and knowing perspectives, the two combined in the space of a frame.
Sattouf deploys a springy black line and a striking palette of creamy pastels. The pages have a clean, almost candied-looking surface, which can exist in stark contrast to some of the horrors depicted (for instance, an honor killing of a beloved cousin in the second volume), and also serve to draw one in, providing a comforting constancy. His chapters tend to be bichromatic, with one consistent color representing the time spent in each country: yellow for Libya, pink for Syria, blue for France.
[ Read reviews of Sattouf’s series by Jennifer Senior and Laila Lalami ]
In “The Arab of the Future 3,” however, another color emerges with force: red. This volume is dominated by life in Syria, and it’s the best of the books yet. The first to make me laugh out loud, it’s also the darkest. The book succeeds because it concentrates on his deeply strained family dynamics, and it looks outward, more explicitly than its predecessors, toward how those conflicts reflect or embody global ones. Both arenas produce violence, which is here often represented by red, coloring imagined killings (Riad’s intense fantasy life) and real pain including the harsh physical punishment of children at school, marital discord, vociferous anger.