Cicada by Shaun Tan

Calm and serene
the sound of a cicada
penetrates the rock.
Matsuo Bashō [1644-94]

“Art is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way.”
Albert Einstein

A Cronenberg-esque allegory of the exploitation of migrant workers and workplace bullying: Shaun Tan's latest picture book is exquisitely disturbing, thought-provoking and visionary. And finally out in the UK, published by Hachette.

The story
Cicada is a lonely data-entry clerk speaking poor English and working in grey sterile office in a grey sterile city. He is overburdened, abused, mocked and rejected by his human coworkers until the day he retires, after 17 years of hard work. He then takes the stairs to reach the top floor of the building - time to say goodbye - in what seems an obvious cinema-like finale.
But he is a cicada: his nymph body unnaturally squeezed into the grey suit splits open to be left behind, while the bright orange young adult emerges, taking flight and heading back to the forest, laughing at humans.

Cicadas are quite magical, tireless insects.
When they hatch from the egg they look like small white ants, then they dig into the soil until they finds roots to feed on and stay underground working from two to seventeen years (just like our Cicada) depending on the species, busy digging tunnels and feeding, without taking much sleep, in order to grow into mature nymphs. 
At that point, after 17 years, something clicks and they are (almost magically) ready to emerge from the ground. They climb the nearest available tree and begin to shed their nymph exoskeleton. 
Their wings inflate with fluid and they begin their much shorter adult life in the outside world.
They spend this brief time singing, looking for a mate. As female respond and mating begins, a new amazing life cycle starts again.
Because of this incredibly long and fascinating process, and because they don't really evolve from larvae but from a fully-formed body to another, Cicadas have been regarded in ancient Chinese folklore as symbols of rebirth, regeneration and immortality (just like the Egyptians viewed the sacred scarab).
It's easy to see how Tan develops and adapts this symbolism to modern times, pushing it further to imagine a not-so-futuristic scenario of horrifying human abuse. 
There is the allusion to the inhumane working conditions of all the invisible migrant workers, which comes from the visual dichotomy between our squat four-armed insect and the tall headless humans in their high-heels and formal clothes. Tan draws humans with as much disregard as they have for Cicada. 
But this story also makes me think about a possible future when robots will be exploited as a workforce, and the coexistence between man and machine will inevitably erode relationships based on empathy and human feelings will be lost.
It also makes me think of mankind's blind, cruel dominance above other living species.
Who is the victim?
We all empathise with Cicada of course, also thanks to the first-person narrative and to the humorous rich subtext, which reaches the back cover:

Cicada tell story. 
Story good. story simple. 
Story even human can understand. 
Tok! Tok! Tok!

The author doesn't tell us everything, choosing to remain almost completely silent in the last spreads, turning suicide into rebirth, leaving humans to their grey habitat and self-destructive lifestyle as cicadas go back to the forest, in a final tribute to Nature's power to transform and regenerate itself.
Cicada is ultimately a story about alienation, from nature and from humanity, exploring the horrifying effects of our species' self-centredness. A meditation remarkably put into pictures with Shaun Tan's unique style, fully drawing from his known interest in horror and science-fiction literature.
Tan made models of the characters and scenes, which he then painted: the book is almost entirely illustrated using a range of blacks, white and greys, while a palette of greens and oranges (Cicada's colours as nymph and then as adult) bursts in the inside back cover, which, together with inside front cover, is part of the book itself.

Who is this book for? For adolescents and adults, although Tan, like most artists, doesn't work with an audience in mind. You can read more about his take on picture books here.
Cicada [15th November 2018]
by Shaun Tan
English edition published by Hodder Children's Books, an imprint of Hachette Children's Group
Reading age: 12+
Themes: Identity, Fantasy
A clay sculpture of Cicada [Credits: Shaun Tan]

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