Culture | More than just a specimen

Diane Obomsawin illustrates the mysterious case of Kaspar Hauser with child-like sensitivity

In 1828, a young boy of roughly 17 years walked into Nuremberg, Germany. His name was Kaspar Hauser, and he carried with him a letter addressed to Captain von Wessenig of the cavalry regiment. The letter stated that he was an abandoned child who had been raised by a stranger. He was seeking the captain in order to become a horseman.

Initially, Hauser was put in prison because the captain had no idea what to do with him. Though he knew a few elementary sentences, Hauser was essentially incapable of basic communication. The prisonguard’s son taught him how to speak, and after eventually being released and put under the tutelage of a professor, he learned how to read, write, and draw.

Once he was able to express himself, Hauser recounted his childhood – 17 years in a basement room, with nothing more than a straw mat to sleep on, bread and water to eat, and a wooden horse to play with.

Hauser ended up living a very short life. One night in December of 1833, he died from a mysterious stab wound to the chest. His tombstone reads, “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious – 1833.”

The curious story of this uncivilized boy fascinated many thinkers of the time who were preoccupied with the nature of man, sin, and civilization. He also became an inspiration for authors such as Paul Verlaine and Herman Melville.

More recently, Hauser’s story sparked the imagination of a local graphic artist, Diane Obomsawin. Last week at Drawn & Quarterly, she launched the English translation of her graphic novel, Kaspar, which came out in French last year. The book is based entirely on the writings of Hauser and his contemporaries.

With this graphic novel, Obomsawin presents a refreshing, subtle, and gentle version of the Hauser story. After the book launch, I was able to speak with the author. She explained that she wanted to show Hauser for what he was – a young man in a thoroughly new world, “an excessively poetic being.”

A scene that really struck me was the one in which Hauser is sitting in his jail cell with his toy horse. He is brought a candle and, like many children, is so fascinated by it that he immediately reaches for the candlelight. The speech bubble in the panel reads, “I want to attach the candle flame to my horse.” In the next scene, he hears a bell ring and says, “I also want to attach sounds to my horse.”

Everything he sees, hears, and touches is new. His mind is a sponge, absorbing all the sensations the world presents to him. “It’s as if he were a baby that could speak,” Obomsawin explains.

Obomsawin highlights these moments in Hauser’s life that humanize him and remind us that he was not just a theory or a disorder, but an actual living and feeling boy – a sensitive and fragile human being.

Though Hauser’s story is dramatic, Obomsawin only lightly touches on the tragic. She explains, “it’s not entirely a melodrama because it’s about someone with a tender heart who loves life and loves people. People liked him instantly because he had a remarkable openness toward others.”

It seems that the author saw in Hauser a particular sensibility, reminiscent of her own childhood. “I identified with this character. In a sense, I had been lost too. Maybe because I have been dragged around the world, left and right. I have changed now, but I didn’t used to talk a lot. I felt like I was in a submarine, I was inside, and I saw life like this.”

Obomsawin’s illustrations convey this innocent and simplistic vision of life. Her signature childlike drawing style is enhanced here by minimalistic visual techniques and the use of grey-scale, both of which foster a sense of being inside Hauser’s memory. Indeed, it feels like we are watching his life unfold through a submarine porthole.

To this day, Kaspar Hauser remains an intriguing character, whose story shocks our sensibilities. In her graphic novel, Obomsawin forces us to move beyond that initial shock and see the fundamental humanity within him. She has added yet another facet to a character that is likely to continue fascinating generations to come.

Check out Obomsawin’s Kaspar and other works at the always-awesome Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard O.