A blindfolded man stands tied to a stake. At his feet lies a body, blood flowing from the head. In the background, a firing squad points its guns at two more staked prisoners. The caption, offered by the artist, reads “There is no remedy.”
This blunt confrontation with military violence is part of Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War, a series of 80 engravings showing Napoleonic atrocities in Spain that has outraged, puzzled and moved viewers over the centuries since it was created. One of those viewers is Toronto writer Larry Gaudet, author of two novels, two works of literary non-fiction, countless corporate executives’ speeches – and now, a series of 80 short prose pieces pairing The Disasters of War with a contemporary Canadian’s own reactions to violence that seems without remedy.
“It’s a respectful homage. My words are written below Goya, not above,” says Gaudet, who is packaging the project as everything from an $80,000 museum piece to a cheapy e-book.
Previously, Gaudet has written The Peacekeeper’s Teahouse, a critically lauded novel about a retired UN peacekeeper’s flight from the moral quagmire of his profession, and Into the Blast Furnace: The Forging of a CEO’s Conscience, a memoir co-written with former Stelco executive Courtney Pratt about the steel company’s bankruptcy. Like Goya, a court painter ready to speak truth to power, Gaudet is a writer ready to bear witness and to question his own accountability: Another of Goya’s captions is simply “ Yo lo vi” – I saw it.
Gaudet’s brief, sparse and deeply affecting texts feature fragmentary memories – his mother’s premature death from a stroke; a 10-year-old cousin’s abandonment by his own mother – and wider personal reactions to peacetime devastation, including that wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attacks and Col. Russell Williams. Gaudet calls the project The Disasters of Peace, and feels the contemporary content suits Goya, an old master often referred to as the first modern painter.
“It is almost like he saw 200 years ahead,” Gaudet says. “This work is anticipatory. It could be set in the Second World War, at Stalingrad or outside a death camp. ... It is almost like I stepped back in time and found someone who could illustrate what I wanted to say.”
His project began simply with an interest in the Spanish painter and printmaker and his insistence on confronting the suffering caused by the Peninsular War of 1808-14. The graphic engravings, which depict execution, rape, dismemberment, famine and resistance, were never published during Goya’s lifetime: They were released by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1863 and exist in several posthumous editions. A first edition would fetch about $150,000, Gaudet estimates; but plunging into the Goya print market, he managed to pick one up for much less because it lacked the original title page and a biographical note from 1863.
Gaudet had become convinced that to work with Goya he needed to own the prints. He is also an entrepreneur – all those years working as a corporate writer – whose first novel, Media Therapy, is about a software engineer who starts an online religion. Part book, part art show, The Disasters of Peace is not only a contemporary encounter with Goya’s moral awareness. It is also an attempt to rethink the publishing business by making personal contact with a small community of acquaintances and potential patrons who might buy an expensive limited edition – and then reaching out to the world with a digital version. Like his software engineer, he can hope it goes viral.
“I have been down the major-publisher route: If I were selling millions and millions of copies, that would be great,” Gaudet says, “... but the business model [for traditional publishing] is based on a certain thinking and I’m not sure it works any more. It certainly doesn’t make money: One in a thousand novelists makes a living.”
Gaudet hopes he may sell his copy of the original Goya prints along with The Disasters of Peace book to a museum or corporate collector, and is unveiling it at a private opening Thursday at the Alison Smith Gallery, the Dundas Street art gallery owned by his wife and business partner. He is also offering two different limited editions of the work, featuring high-quality photographs of the prints – copyright has long since expired – for $40,000 and $10,000, respectively. But, at the other end of the spectrum, he is looking for a publisher who will publish the project in digital form, and is debating whether to also offer the PDF file for free.
“You take the 18th-century model of literary patronage ... somebody underwrote a book of poems or commissioned paintings ... and you marry it to social media and viral publicity,” he says. “I have come up with a product I am very proud of. The language I have come to is very basic, it’s very direct, very plaintive. It has to be understandable to the folks I know, not some hypothetical reader. It’s old and it’s new.”