Cover of book: The Salty River

Jan Bauer
The Salty River

While some of us cope with personal pain by going for a brisk jog, contemporary publishing suggests we have the wrong idea. The endurance memoir, popularised by authors such as Cheryl Strayed, suggests that for the best chance of a full recovery, you’ll need better shoes. 

In The Salty River, the first book from a new local long-form comics publisher, German Jan Bauer has come to central Australia to deal with the end of a 16-year relationship. His plan is to hike the Larapinta Trail, and then some: all up, he’s walking 450 kilometres in 25 days.

The long personal journey facilitates aloneness, which means, paradoxically, for the reader of the tale, that the narrator must be a pleasing person to spend a great deal of time with. Through minimal dialogue, translated from German by Judith Pattinson, Bauer quickly sketches himself as just the right companion: game, serious and enjoyably prone to earnest captioning. “When everyday life is governed by external forces,” he writes, “you have to think in the abstract. But out here, life is more immediate.” 

In his landscape of choice, rendered by Bauer as dreamy and expansive, this thought feels rich and urgent – immediate indeed. Of course, it’s exactly at this transcendent moment that he meets Morgane, and at this point, The Salty River becomes a more complicated book. 

This is to say it’s not a book about learning to love again. Morgane, younger than Bauer, is neither crisis nor saviour; she has her own walk to do. So this is less the story of a magical solution to Bauer’s travails than the story of what really happens to most of us all the time: we try to keep sight of our goals, or we watch them alter, when a stranger surprises us by stumbling upon our trail.

But enough about the characters. The point of this book is the art, because Bauer’s sought a dramatic landscape to overwhelm his head and heart. Here, that sense is conveyed through thick, expressive greys; Bauer and Morgane are clear and quick and ever in motion. Whole wordless sequences are tasked with demonstrating the experience of climbing a hill, checking in on your companion, looking over your shoulder, then having a brief rest. 

Does Bauer get what he wants from Australia? You would have to ask him. The Salty River is a rare memoir that spends as much time looking out as looking in.  CR

Twelve Panels Press, 240pp, $30

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2015 as "Jan Bauer, The Salty River".

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Reviewer: CR

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