- Picture Book as Personal Journey:A Kristevan Reading of Peter Sís's Tibet: Through the Red Box
Tibet: Through the Red Box is about a boy's anguish at his father's unexplained disappearance and his attempt as a grown man not only to accept, but also to celebrate that traumatic absence, which became an extraordinary journey full of magical adventures. The bereft son coping with the absence of his father is a key thematic, structural, and psychological motif in narratives as diverse as The Odyssey, The Secret Garden, and The Glass Menagerie. But Peter Sís brings a special poignancy to the peculiar combination of angst and adoration, competition and identification, that marks such father-son relationships. Through shifting text-image interactions in this semi-autobiographical picture book, Sís captures the process of growing up—not only from child to adult, but also, specifically, from boy to man—by overcoming the trauma of paternal absence. What gives Tibet its unusual depth, however, is that, even as it tells this tale of love and healing, it seems to interrogate whether a complete and unequivocal triumph over past trauma is possible. Though Sís says about Tibet that "One part of the story is what I knew and believed in as a child, the other part is what I understand now as an adult" ("Iron Curtain"), the picture book itself seems to delight in thwarting the complacency of complete "understanding." There is a persistent indeterminacy in Sís's book that complicates its therapeutic teleology of transforming childhood experience into adult understanding.
Sís's picture book is fruitfully read through Julia Kristeva's ideas about the psychological mechanisms underlying the process of "growing up," especially because her theory explores the aesthetic manifestations of symbolic and semiotic realms. In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva discusses modernist poetry as a discourse marked by the dialectic between symbolic and semiotic modalities. Her paradigm of poetic language as an aesthetic construct that allows the play of primal psychological forces offers new ways of approaching Sís's picture-book art. In his book, Peter [End Page 10] Sís celebrates his father's marvelous adventures in Tibet while trying to come to terms with the paralyzing pain he suffered because of his father's unexplained absence. Reworking his father's Tibetan diary and the stories he told upon his return, Sís creates a layered picture-book narrative that captures the psychological processes underlying loss and suggests the ambiguous possibilities of self-healing in complex text-image relations that resonate with Kristeva's theoretical terms.
Peter Sís's father, Vladimir Sís, is a well-known Czech filmmaker who was sent to China in the 1950s by the Czech government, ostensibly to teach the Chinese photography, but actually to film the construction of a highway that would allow China to invade Tibet. Along with a few companions, Vladimir Sís was separated from his Chinese hosts after a massive landslide. Unable to find his way back, he wandered the land for almost a year and a half, ultimately meeting the Dalai Lama, who was still a child. While Vladimir Sís was lost in a foreign land, having unexpected but not entirely undesirable adventures, Peter, who was barely four at the time, waited at home trying to cope with his father's inexplicable disappearance. The book itself was written at another distressing moment in Sís's life, when his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the spectre of paternal disappearance seems to loom large once again.
Most reviews and analyses of the book have focused on the political contexts or the theatrical aspects of Tibet.1 But the work also deserves a closer consideration of its psychological dimensions, for, as Sís confesses about Tibet, "That's probably the toughest, hardest book I created just because, without thinking about it, I got very close, closest, to my personal life" (Teichner). Significantly, in employing an iconotextual aesthetic (incorporating both visual and verbal signs) that stresses the unknowable and enigmatic, Sís refuses the easy reassurances offered by many children's books about problems solved and difficulties overcome...