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The Walls of Samaris, Part 4: Textual Variants

by Julian Darius, published before on Sequart Research & Literacy Organization at Monday, 12 September 2011

We’ve previously examined the story of The Walls of Samaris, a French masterpiece that deserves to be known among comics-literate Americans. In part two, we looked at several implications of its trompe-d’oeil device. In part three, I wrapped up my interpretation by exploring some solutions to additional mysteries of the text. There’s really little point in discussing textual variants unless you know what they’re variants of, and I’ll presume that you do below. So if you haven’t read those earlier installments, please do so now.

There’s also my introduction to the overall series of The Obscure Cities, though you don’t have to read it to understand these articles on The Walls of Samaris.

Changes Between the First and Second Edition

For the 1988 second edition, Peeters and Schuiten expanded the story by two pages, from 44 to 46. That revised edition has been read ever since, and it’s to this edition that I’ve referred throughout.

The most significant change was to the ending. In his afterword, Peeters describes the reasoning for this change as follows:

Some months after the publication of the collected story, the perplexity of numerous readers in the face of the final pages of the story incited us to modify them. Though almost identical in its content, the new version of the finale — longer, a little more explicit — seems to us to bring to the story a conclusion clearly more coherent. And it offered us the possibility of making appear the young architect Eugen Robick, future protagonist of The Fever of Urbanicande.

The point, in a text full of ambiguity, wasn’t to remove that ambiguity, only to lessen it a bit. Specifically, it seems that readers weren’t understanding that Xhystos was a simulacrum of sorts as well.

In the original version, Franz, upon returning to Xhystos, goes directly to the council building, exactly as he does in the revised version. After he’s rejected, however, he doesn’t go into the city, visit the site of the old Stock Club, visit Anna’s old apartment, feel weak, have a hallucination of Anna menaced by the sundew, and then return to the council again. Instead, he simply sits down and waits, much as he does when he returns to the council in the revised version.

This added material accounts for the whole of the revised version’s two additional pages. Upon Franz’s return to the council, one original panel is cut and replaced with a new panel showing Franz walking back to the council building. The remainder of that page, two pages before the end, is slightly modified to make it work as a return to the council. Nothing of significance is lost.

The penultimate page remains the same, but the final page has been completely redrawn, except for the final panel (and the sundew imagery beside it). The revised composition consists of vertical panels in this space above the final panel, but the quite different original composition was had a single, long panel over a series of other panels. Perhaps Schuiten realized that he didn’t need to reestablish the interior of the council, albeit from a different angle, since he had just done so on the bottom of the previous page. This allowed for the panels to be higher, emphasizing the council’s high position, relative to Franz, an effect certainly communicated much better in the revised version.

Despite the final page being almost entirely redrawn, its content remains mostly unchanged. The changes that do occur, however, are especially informative. The most significant change is visual. In the original version, Franz notices the sundew pattern underneath the lead council member’s elevated seat, and this is what triggers his realization, causing him to leave. In the revised version, this has been replaced with the lead council member being a two-dimensional trompe-d’oeil, as seen from a partial side view (he’s also depicted as especially flat in the preceding panel). Based on Peeter’s own words, both version were meant to convey the same thing: the Xhystos is a simulacrum of sorts, not unlike Samaris. But readers were confused by using the sundew as the revelation, so Schuiten and Peeters used the trompe-d’oeil instead, which does a better job.

It’s easy to see how readers might have been confused. The sundew pattern certainly suggests a connection between the two cities, but it might mean that Xhystos, at least on its highest levels, had also taken the sundew as its emblem. What’s more, it could have done so during Franz’s missing time, which makes it much harder to realize that Xhystos has been a simulacrum of sorts all along.

In the original version, it’s even possible to read the sundew pattern here as a hallucination. It’s not seen earlier, in the wide shot of the council chamber, which is preserved without alternation in the revised version — although the bottom loop of the decoration around the circular sundew is mistakenly also preserved in the revised version, although it’s eliminated on the final page. It’s easy to guess why the sundew wasn’t included in this earlier shot, in the original version: it would have given away the revelation. But its absence raises the possibility that Franz, tired from his journey, is hallucinating it. And in the original version, Franz’s narration explicitly states that seeing the sundew design caused his realization, which might have been seen as emphasizing the hallucination interpretation.

Franz’s revelation is the same: that Xhystos is “the simulacrum of simulacra.” Only it’s a lot easier to think him wrong, in the original version, and it’s a lot harder to realize that this isn’t a new state of affairs. That the sundew was used in the original, however, does add evidence to the interpretation that Xhystos created Samaris.

The final dialogue, before Franz exits the council, is also changed. In the revised version, the council remarks, “Again one of these sick people! …There are more and more of them.” This again suggests that Xhystos is a sort of simulacrum, one that is making people sick. In the original version, Franz speaks instead, stuttering and saying that what he had to say wasn’t important. This further supports the idea that Franz might be hallucinating, since he seems unable to speak coherently. Cutting his stuttering dialogue avoids that and allows for the added dialogue from the council. It also further underlines both the false nature of Xhystos and Franz’s rejection of that city, since he departs without saying a single word, as if the council (and by extension, Xhystos) is beneath his concern. After all, why speak to an automaton?

It’s also a bit harder to see, in the original version, that Franz has already to Samaris and thus belongs with its other victims. In the original version, his narration of his realization says that he narrowly escaped falling into a trap. This is absent in the revised version, where Franz narrates that he had abandoned “those truly close to me,” language that underlines that he has already fallen into Samaris’s trap but that is absent from the original.

This fact is further underlined by a change in dialogue in the final panel, for which the art isn’t changed. In both versions, Franz calls Samaris “my city.” But in the original, he says he’s returning to Samaris to tell his secret. In the revised version, he instead says that he “never had to leave.” This again highlights the idea that Franz has already been captured by Samaris.

The two pages that were added earlier also emphasize this point. In the original, it’s all too easy to miss the meaning of those decaying roads. Besides that, the only evidence that Franz has experienced missing time is the council saying that Franz’s mission is “very old, [from] before the Khar War.” Showing that the Stock Club has changed and that someone else has been occupying Anna’s apartment for two years reinforces the interpretation, which is crucial for understanding that Franz has already been captured by Samaris.

Those added two pages also contain Franz feeling “weaker and weaker,” which acts along with the added dialogue in the council, as Franz departs, to suggest that an effect similar to the fatigue at Samaris is also occurring at Xhystos.

Similarly, the added hallucination of the city twisting, becoming a sundew that threatens Anna, emphasizes Franz’s fatigue (a clue to the nature of Xhystos), the falseness of Xhystos (in that it twists, like the façades of Samaris), and Franz’s concern for Anna (which not only motivates his second departure for Samaris but suggests, in Franz and Anna’s closeness, that Franz too has been captured by Samaris).

Using Eugen Robick as the current occupant of Anna’s apartment performs double duty. It further establishes that Franz has been shifted in time, especially because Robick, as the protagonist of The Fever of Urbanicande, wouldn’t lie. But it also introduces his character, as Peeters points out in his afterword, helping to tie the two books together.

What isn’t immediately obvious is that Robick, who will go on to renovate an entire city, is in Xhystos because it too has been entirely renovated in the art nouveau style. This idea of city-wide renovation is associated much more strongly with The Fever of Urbanicande, although it’s implicit in The Walls of Samaris too — a fact readers of The Walls of Samaris might not understand, but one widely understood by readers of the entire series. Understanding this perhaps the first step to understanding the origin of Samaris, which is a city created from scratch, a massive project not unlike a city-wide renovation. Thus, Robick’s presence provides a key clue to the idea that Xhystos was not only renovated wholesale but likely created Samaris, perhaps based on things its architects learned during the renovation.

But these changes to the final pages aren’t the only ones made between the two editions. The image of the two-dimensional figure, discovered in Samaris by Franz prior to his seeing the cases in which people apparently sleep, has also been changed. In the original version, it looks like the hotel manager.

If everyone in Samaris is a simulacrum, it’s no big surprise that the hotel manager is too. But it’s hard to believe that the hotel manager is two-dimensional. The council of Xhystos is only seen from afar in their seats. But the hotel manager isn’t only seen by Franz up close, behind his desk; he’s also seen escorting Franz to the hotel room and sitting at Franz’s table. So it’s hard to believe that he’s really two-dimensional, and this only underlines the logistical problems of asserting that all of Samaris is a trompe-d’oeil — problems that aren’t fixed in the revised version but at least don’t have a spotlight shined on them.

Replacing the hotel manager in the revised version is what seems to be Mark, as discussed earlier. This neatly avoids the problems associated with the hotel manager, while also answering the question of why Anna’s alone, if Mark accompanied her. It does raise the question, however, of why Mark is two-dimensional while Anna isn’t, although we can guess that Samaris works differently on different people and that Mark perhaps lacked the romantic yearnings of Anna or Franz.

Taken as a whole, the changes between the first and second edition do remove ambiguity, preventing misinterpretation and rendering things, as Peeters say, “clearly more coherent.” But there’s plenty of ambiguity remaining, and what’s been added provides additional clues that allow readers to dive much deeper into the text’s mysteries, if they’re willing. Comparing the revised version to the original also serves to highlight those clues, helping us just a little bit more.

The English Translation

An English translation of The Walls of Samaris was serialized, under that title, in Heavy Metal magazine, in issues cover-dated October 1984 to March 1985. It was subsequently published in collected form, which changed the name to The Great Walls of Samaris, by NBM Publishing.

This means that the translation reproduces the first French edition, rather than the revised second edition, which has never been published in English. While understandable, this is especially unfortuate because of the unintended ambiguities the first edition and how superior the second edition is in offering clues allowing the reader to figure out far more of what’s actually going on, behind the scenes.

The translation is also universally disdained among fans of the series.

Its most glaring error occurs on the bottom of the third page, as the man sent to recruit Franz says the mission pays “twenty thousand paz.” Paz is obviously the currency in Xhystos. The translation instead takes Paz as Franz’s name: “The money is good on this mission, Paz — $20,000.” A few pages later, when Franz’s name is actually given, it’s translated properly as the character’s name, yet the incongruity wasn’t caught.

In their original serialization, titles and captions summarizing past installments were added to the artwork, and they obscure some of the art. (Some correctly refer to the main character as Franz, but others refer to him as Paz.)

Another problem occurs in the richly evocative scene in which Franz stares out from Anna’s terrace at Xhystos. What I’ve translated as “I watched Xhystos again, but it was already Samaris I thought I was perceiving. I understood that I had already accustomed myself to the idea of leaving,” is translated simply as “I looked at Xhystos, but in my heart I was seeing Samaris.” The entire last line is omitted, robbing the translation of Franz’s interpretation of his impression. Removing the “again” also robs the reader of the impression that Franz has Romantically gazed at Xhystos before, which says far more about his Romantic character than the phrase “in my heart.” This phrase also implies that it’s only Franz’s emotion that causes his impression that he’s looking at Samaris, making the reader less likely to see the ways in which Franz is staring at Samaris.

The translation also adds word balloons to Clara’s dialogue as Franz assaults her, making that sequence look far less odd. That makes sense, if one presumes that the sequence isn’t intended to be odd, but it clearly is.

The translation takes another liberty when Franz discovers the people in what looks like open crates. He says that these people were “only simulacra.” The French word used here, simulacres, could also be translated as “mock-ups,” “dummies,” or “shams.” “Simulacra” is admittedly a more formal, even academic choice, but it embraces all of these possibilities, evocatively emphasizing falseness over any particular explanation, which isn’t there in the French. Perhaps feeling that Americans prefer a bit less ambiguity, the printed translation uses instead “wax figures,” which simply isn’t in the original. That these simulacra are made of wax would also preclude Franz from being one (a possibility the translator probably didn’t imagine), given that he soon treks back to Xhystos through the hot desert.

In a tale that relies to a great degree upon ambiguous language that can suggest multiple possibilities, much of that richness is eliminated by the translation, which opts for a more obvious, direct, American style. That’s often a good idea in translation — one has to change the register, or level of formality, along with the actual words, and Americans tend to speak far more informally than most cultures. This is, however, a spectacularly bad idea for The Walls of Samaris, in which Franz’s language should read as poetic and slightly stilted, indicating both his disposition and the bureaucratic society in which he comes.

Thus, as Franz flies towards the walls of Samaris, I’ve translated a caption as “Each hour we advanced towards her, Samaris seemed to distance herself from us.” What I’ve translated as “each hour” is in French “à mesure que,” which can translate simply as “as,” carries a sense of duration or repetition that I’ve tried to preserve; it could also translate, though a bit clunky, as “by measure as.” But the phrases “advanced towards her” and “distance herself from us,” which I’ve translated very literally, evoke the kind of erotic dance that Samaris exudes over Franz.

The published English translation instead offers “As we approached, Samaris seemed to be further and further from us.” Strictly speaking, there’s nothing incorrect about this translation, but “approached” is more matter-of-fact than “advanced,” which carries a hint of the sexual that’s clearly present in Franz’s descriptions of Samaris. Worse, rendering the active phrase “Samaris seemed to distance herself” as the passive “Samaris seemed to be further and further” is considerably less poetic and evocative; it makes Samaris a simple object, not something with agency that could engage in a kind of erotic dance. In this way, the text is stripped of its richness and poetic possibilities.