In October, Metropolitan Books will publish the English translation of the acclaimed French graphic memoir, Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1981. The grim but funny three-volume work by Riad Sattouf, about growing up under bleak political regimes in Syria and Libya, will also, Metropolitan hopes, be the kind of breakout hit in the States that it has turned into in Europe.
Sattouf is a bestselling cartoonist in France and an award-winning filmmaker. Arab of the Future, named best book of the year at the Angouleme Festival, is also delivering sales—the first volume has moved more than 200,000 copies since its release in France last May. (Volume two in will be released shortly in France.)
“The book kicked Piketty off the bestseller list in France and has been a bestseller for months,” said Metropolitan Books executive editor Riva Hocherman, who acquired the three-volume work from Marleen Seegers at the 2 Seas Agency in California. The book has won a slew of literary prizes, and translation rights have been sold in 16 countries. In France, Arab of the Future is published by Editions Allary, a small indie publishing house. “Only the second book he’s published,” Hocherman said, referring to the publisher, Guillaume Allary.
This is Sattouf’s first work in English. “He’s well known in France, but unknown here in the U.S.,” said Hocherman. Metropolitan Books, which has not set its initial print runs for the first volume, is planning to bring Sattouf to the U.S. to promote the title in the fall.
Hocherman, who has been acquiring a string of nonfiction comics lately, also plans to publish Verax, a graphic nonfiction account of the National Security Agency and electronic surveillance by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil Bendib, in fall 2016.
Arab of the Future is the story of Sattouf’s childhood, growing up the son of a passive French mother and an over-the-top Syrian father. Sattouf's dad is, in his recounting, a goofy academic and idealistic Pan Arabist who drags his family along with him to a succession of strange teaching jobs under menacing but barely functioning political regimes. Sattouf’s account has also been met with some controversy, which is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that he used to work at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. (Sattouf left the publication well before the now-infamous attack on its staff earlier this year.) Arab of the Future is beautifully illustrated and often funny but it’s also a candid account of living in a cruel and chaotic political culture.
“The story is told from the perspective of a small child, so it’s non-judgemental, offered without interpretation as a little child would see it,” Hocherman said. But, she added, “it’s not a flattering picture of Arab society. [Sattouf has] been criticized for being anti-Arab,” Hocherman explained. “But it’s his story and his family’s story.”
“It’s got a little bit of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a little bit of the father in Maus and a nod toward the cartooning of Herge and Tintin,” Hocherman went on. “The book offers a picture of the Arab world we’ve never seen.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story said that Riva Hocherman was a senior editor, she is executive editor of Metropolitan Books. In addition, Editions Allary is not a comics publisher, it is prose publishing house.