Lost for words

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The Depository Andrzej Klimowski Faber £7.99

Andrzej Klimowski, who trained in Warsaw, is a graphic artist responsible for some of the most interesting book jackets of recent years - including Milan Kundera's - using a collage technique that refers back to Max Ernst and the Dadaists. Collage has anin-built sense of irony and gravitas which illustration rarely achieves: Klimowski's work has helped raise the intellectual level of his art form.

Nowadays, there is a perceived split between "art" and "illustration". In the past, most European art was, in effect, illustrating the Bible, and when painters and sculptors pulled themselves free of this religious agenda they retained something of the sacral aura connected with it. Those who illuminated manuscripts and, later, provided woodcuts for printed books, came to be seen, instead, as "craftsmen".

In publishing, it is the writer who is the artist, and drawings, when they are simply literal depictions, are often seen as intrusive. Dickens offered his publisher money not to illustrate his books. It is ironic that although Bonnard, Klee and Picasso all produced book illustrations, the visual artist has come to be seen as superfluous to all but the packaging of books. The sort of literary illustration that does exist often fails to rise above a pastiche of what is now seen as a neutral, 19th-century style; it treats the text as an artefact to be approached reverentially.

With The Depository, Klimowski has neatly sidestepped the problem of the sanctity of the text by dispensing with it entirely. This is not an original idea - the Belgian expressionist Frans Masereel was producing "wordless novels" in the Twenties - but ina way that misses the point. There is something deeply satisfying about a book of images in black ink; something that goes right back to the birth of print.

The Depository is billed as a wordless novel, but "short story'' would be fairer, and it can look a little too much like a comic strip without the speech bubbles. The narrative is surreal, following the misadventures of the naked book-winged figures thatpeople the imagination of a sleeping artist / writer. The drawings occasionally fall uncomfortably between deftness and expressionistic urgency. A tighter approach would, however, have overloaded the central conceit and interrupted the flow of images. Some of these, particularly the images in the flying sequences, are genuinely haunting; others are oddly reminiscent of flash photographs.

My main criticism concerns the use of words. The book could probably have worked without a title; it could certainly do without the subtitle, "A Dream Book"; and if ever a book did not need a blurb it is this one. These verbal intrusions mean, alas, tha t we haven't really escaped the text yet.