In view of the centenary of the Great War, French duo Stephane Barroux and Julien Joubert fused history, speech, art and music to bring alive a soldier’s diary, at a performance in the city recently

It’s really true: one man’s trash could be another man’s treasure. Stephane Barroux, a Paris-based illustrator has been creating children’s books for 22 years. Two years ago, on his way back home on a winter’s day, Stephane, for whom “books are his life”, stumbled upon a street sale. He found a cardboard box tied with a shoelace which contained a 100-year-old diary marked with a date in August 1914 and a military medal. He says his first reaction was “wow!” — the diary may have a record of an important part of World War I history, when Allied and Central forces went to war and ended up redrawing the map of Europe, and leaving 17 million dead.

Universal tale

Stephane mentioned it to friends and they alerted him to the possibility of the diary containing a story worth telling. And, it was! Stephane says, “It was universal — while it was the diary of a French soldier, you could easily change it into a Prussian soldier and much of the story about the human condition in war would still hold true. It was also very historic as it contained a document that told us what really happened in the trenches in the first three months of war.” Sadly, the name of the French soldier who had maintained this diary in August and September 1914 had faded.

The diary tells the story of this French soldier called to war in the villages of Lorraine in North Eastern France. He bids his family goodbye and goes off to the trenches, facing artillery shells from the Prussians, digging trenches, walking long distances and not getting much sleep, all the while hoping to hear from home. He sees less than a month of action according to the diary, when he is injured and sent off to the military hospital. We never find out what happened to him after September 1914 and if he survived the war.

Stephane worked on it for 15 months and published the graphic novel On Les Aura. The title is a French call to arms that translates to ‘We Will Get Them’, possibly an ironic comment on how the French thought in 1914 that the war was merely a formality and would soon be over. The English version, Line Of Fire, published by Phoenix Yard books, released last month in the U.K. and has sold 3,000 copies.

Globe trotting

When a war museum in the north of France called Stephane to do an exhibition with the original artwork of his novel, he reached out to Julien Joubert, who had 20 years of experience as a musician. Julien accompanied him and created the sound effects and music while Stephane painted scenes from his book. Since then the duo have been on the road touring countries such as France, Belgium, the U.K. and India, and have notched up 20 performances in a year. Since this is the centenary year of the start of the Great War, Julien says they have 50 performances scheduled this year, including the 10-city tour of India they are currently on.

Stephane used charcoal in his book, but for his live demonstrations he uses China ink and brushes to draw scenes from his novel, while a camera captures his illustration. As he reads out from his book, English subtitles appear on the screen. Stephane deliberately keeps the palette black-and-white; his paint strokes are minimal but evocative. Meanwhile, Julien masterfully uses his electric guitar to create music beds to accompany the speech and art. He also creates stunning effects such as rain falling, artillery fire, explosions, and even the sound of a train in motion.

Julien says, while the performance is largely planned, they both love to pull surprises on each other. For instance, in Chennai, Stephane, who usually does dozen-scene illustrations, did an extra painting, for which Julien had to improvise and create guitar riffs and sound effects. And Julien realised that if he pulled his jack, it created a sound just like gunfire and employed that trick. Both artists literally pulled out the stops, to make that an immersive audio-visual performance that moved and illuminated the audience.