Dear reader, have you ever considered in which beautifully designed building you’d like to get lost forever? In Swimming in Darkness, Lucas Harari chooses the Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland. The quartzite walls of the postmodern building designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and built in 1996 do not simply attract Pierre, the young architect, they also try to imprison him. Though many reviews describe Harari’s story about rival architects doing research and the young Pierre falling in love with a girl as noir, some aspects of the story are closer to horror: there is dread, there is mysticism, there are mountains and there is madness. The rocks – both the tamed and chiseled ones in the building and the wild ones in the mountains – seem to respond to Pierre.
According to a legend that the people of Vals do not take seriously (though they should), the mountain devours a foreigner every hundred years, and the buildings that have been built on the same location as today’s 7132 Thermal Bath and Spa in Vals somehow assist in this. The village fool claims to have seen the stones come alive around a soldier in World War 1, and says he witnessed the mysterious disappearance of this soldier in a previous building on the same spot. The current building, Zumthor’s bath, is the subject of the research of Professor Valeret, our antagonist, an arrogant and famous architect, and Pierre, the failed grad student, our hero. In the graphic novel, the bath seems to be alive with the spirit and with the hunger of the surrounding mountains. In his research, Valeret aims to rationalize what he perceives to be an architectural riddle, while Pierre is attached to the building in a far less rational way: he feels the place.
In Swimming in Darkness, both time and space are multi-layered, deep, and irrational. As far as time is concerned, the village fool devoted his lifetime to a truth that no one believes; Valeret’s research reaches back to the Romans; but the mountains themselves represent the non-human scale of geological time. The formation of the Alps started 300 million years ago at a time when the Earth looked/felt/smelt nothing like it does today – the attraction to which Pierre responds is mystical and ancient.
Another possibly well-known comic on the attraction geological formations have on humans is Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault. While I would not call Harari’s narrative a horror story, Ito’s one-shot clearly falls into that genre. Ito’s characters are inexplicably driven to a weird geological formation in which there are human-shaped holes that are too old and too deep to be man-made. In both Ito’s and Harari’s story the rocks call the individuals, lure them, and devour them. A major difference is that Ito portrays this attraction as claustrophobic: on the one hand, it is privately located in the mind, on the other hand, the space the body enters is extremely tight. In contrast, Harari represents a different dread: the space in the spa is empty, dark, and vast, and the landscapes showing hills and valleys emphasize the smallness of humans.
In Swimming in Darkness, space is just as irrational and deep as time. Pierre tries to draw the blueprint of the spa but fails, he also attempts to draw the interior but it keeps on changing. When we see Pierre experiencing the bath, Harari’s panels reorganize Zumthor’s minimalistic vast spaces: the dark build environment as it is represented in the panels evokes supernatural and existential dread.
Interestingly, Pierre’s research is built on the same idea that formulates Harari’s practice in the graphic narrative: while spending time alone in the bath, Pierre draws and redraws spaces from various angles in order to understand the building. Drawing, for both Pierre and Harari, is a way of making sense of something complex by visual interpretation. Harari’s page designs utilize panels as if they were bricks in a greater structure: no pause, no gutter, no distance. On Harari’s pages the spaces where Pierre has mystical experiences are as neatly structured as the minimalist postmodern building that serves as the major setting. However, Swimming in Darkness shows us that despite the attempts to visually organize (by drawing, by building), the supernatural forces cannot be tamed.
The title of the French original, L’Attrazione, confirms this sense of, well, attraction to a space where the supernatural is manifest. To me, this attraction has brought Lovecraft to mind. The beginning of the story, before Pierre arrives at Vals, emphasizes that he is not acting rationally, that he is somehow drifting, forever moving towards Vals without being aware of it. We meet Pierre the waiter: he used to be a doctoral student and was so overwhelmed by his research on Zumthor’s buildings that he destroyed all of it. He left the university and let time do its healing work while he was working in a restaurant. Pierre cannot explain why he is taking up his research again and why he is visiting Vals. Yet he leaves his life behind, casually breaking up with his girlfriend and leaving town. Harari enjoys drawing the little scenes where life passes Pierre by: there is a sequence showing him occupying the wrong seat in the train; in another he asks for directions from a merry group of friends in a pub. The drive in him to go to the bath and to the mountain of Vals is somehow stronger than the banal routine of life.
A further element that confirmed the Lovecraftian associations in me is the way Pierre’s story is framed: the very first and very last pages of the book are not about Pierre, but about a mediator who reflects on Pierre’s story. Lovecraft also used rational figures to create narrative distance from supernatural events: people of science read about, listen to, and interpret the testimonies of others. Here, there is a first person narrator whose father, as we find out on the first page of Swimming in Darkness, knew Pierre but never talked about it. The narrator disappears until the very last page, where Pierre’s manuscript is sent to the narrator’s father, but it is read by the narrator. While in Lovecraft it is people of science who get these personal narratives on supernatural experiences, here, as the last page reveals, an artist deals with them: Pierre’s notebook on the bath is not analyzed in a rational way but is subject to interpretation by drawing. It is in fact Pierre’s notebook that inspired Swimming in Darkness, the last page reveals. This page, which was a surprise for me as a reader, reaffirms what the page design, grey surfaces, and Harari’s delicate linework have been claiming all along: that drawing is a means to make sense and organize, and that this way of interpretation offers a different kind of insight than rationality. Drawing can provide an insight which attempts to grasp the mystical.