Taking place amidst the Basque separatist movement in Spain, Mikel focuses on a guy named Miguel who appears to be nobody important. But as Mikel reveals, sometimes the decisions you make out of desperation put you in a position where it seems that despite your lack of importance, all animosity points to you. That’s paranoia, for sure, but paranoia can be fueled by real situations that create unknowable outcomes.
It’s 2006 and while nothing in Miguel’s life is going right, he’s not letting that bother him. In his small village, he delivers candy for work and spends his nights writing a novel that never seems to end — or start, actually. His wife is exasperated with him — he never pays bills — but he’s filled with optimism and love for his sons.
We’ve already met Miguel, though, in a much darker world four years later, where he creeps out of bed, thinks about terrorists, prepares to kill, and scans his car for bombs. How did such a happy man get to this bleak place?
Our first indication is on New Year’s Eve, as the year turns to 2007 and the news reports an investigation on a bombing at the airport in Madrid two days before, the work of Basque separatists the E.T.A. The report registers despite Miguel’s drunken reverie with his wife and he forms the idea that becoming a bodyguard in Basque country might solve his financial woes and provide him material to jumpstart his writing.
Miguel’s easy transition into the job has to do with the desperation for bodyguards — as violence escalates and death threats become more dire, corners are cut in recruiting and training. They just need bodies with guns next to politicians, and Miguel fits that qualification. It’s on his first day that he becomes Mikel — the Basque variation on his name, preferred by a mayor he’s assigned to protect.
Miguel finds the work unpredictable enough that he’s shackled to it, and to his tightly-wound partner Rosa, through whose eyes he learns about the ways things work in Basque country, and how the many people there look at Miguel and other bodyguards as enemies, which isn’t great when you want to do something as mundane as getting a cup of coffee in the only bar in town, which is frequented by terrorist supporters. The paranoia increases while time with his family slips away until he becomes more like a ghost in their lives.
Belgian author Bellido spent four years working the same job as Miguel, and Mikel is based on that experience. Bellido’s concern in capturing that situation is less with the realities of the political realities of the region and more with the way the wider conflict trickles down into someone’s personal life to such a degree that it not only defines the pieces that are in it, but shape his perception of the world he walks through.
It’s a world that is overwhelmed by threats that don’t manifest as often as the heightened anticipation makes it seem like it will. But it does and the incidents of violence in the book work to create psychological markers that weigh down on the body guards that live in this choking atmosphere. Trust becomes an issue that dictates approaches to relationships with other people, and the smallest symbols create overwhelming fears that derail natural approaches to life.
Belgian artist Vanistenpael’s art captures the world of Mikel evocatively. Often dark and hazy, with blackness that overtake the characters and force a mood on them, she also gives the characters expressive faces and animated body language that allow them to fight back against the visual oppression. Moments of violence create abstracted bombast that overtake all the figures, who live for the moments of cheerful pastels and city scenes that they are occasionally allowed to enjoy.
As written by Bellido, these are the moments that define who these people really are, but they are also unrealities apart from their security life, which engulfs their days, making them feel like two different people. Miguel is a ghost to Mikel and these pastel cityscapes are just specter-like stomping grounds for that ghost. The reality, unfortunately, is in the darkness.