Just a brief description of some of the albums. The free and simplistic "interpretations" are mine, they correspond to the first ideas that came to my mind when reading the books. No attempt is made to enter the obscure world.
L'Ombre d'un Homme
The action takes place in Blossfeldtstad. Albert Chamisso, having a prestigious and successful job and married for two weeks for a wonderful women, starts to have unsupportable nightmares. Advised by a doctor he takes some "purely chemical pills, with no herbs at all", and the nightmares disappear! (actually he doesn't dream at all). But, on the other hand, his shadow becomes coloured... From that moment on he falls in disgrace, loses his job, his wife and his self-respect...
There are three ideas that come to the reader's mind at once in this story. First, it is a story on how intolerant we are with what and who is different; we are even intolerant with ourselves if we realise we have something that makes us different (who is really different just wants to be ordinary....). Second, a coloured shadow means a transparent person; it appears that nobody wants to know who the others or themselves really are: it is may be better to show just a black and white shadow of ourselves than to expose who we really are. And third, that a person with no dreams is empty (again the idea of transparency, but now in another sense) and unhappy.
In the end we get the feeling that may be sometimes we need to be transparent and to show ourselves as we really are. If somehow we are accepted at those moments, then we can get rid of our nightmares, have our shadow back, and start dreaming other dreams.
La Fièvre d'Urbicande
Eugen Robick is the "Urbatect" of Urbicande, a town divided by its river: the South bank was already rebuilt by Eugen Robick, having big and symmetric avenues and buildings; the North bank is "chaotic" and unorganised, at least according to the symmetry standards of E. Robick and of the rulers of Urbicande. The two banks form two separate worlds, connected only by two bridges strongly controlled by the politic power installed in the South (you can find the plan of the town in the link Urbicande). People and rulers from the South bank have no idea of what happens in the North, most of them never crossed the river, and vice-versa. The fear of an invasion of the South from the "unknown" North people lead the rulers to refuse the construction of a third bridge, in opposition to the plans and proposals of E. Robick. However, a cube (like the one you can see rotating in the end of this page) brought to Robick's office will change the life of the town... (in case you have not yet read this book but plan to do so, may be it is not a good idea to continue reading this synopsis) The cube starts to develop (each edge grows and new cubes are formed) and to grow (the size of the cubes gets bigger). Soon enough there are cubes all over the town covering it with a big network! No longer it is possible to control the flow of people from one bank of the town to the other: the two separate worlds are irreversibly connected! The network finishes by disappearing, as a consequence of its enormous expansion.
May be because I have read this book close to the anniversary of portuguese revolution (25th April 1974) it reminded me the process of a "revolution" (not necessarily a political revolution). When there is something "wrong" that needs to be changed, only seldom the solution comes by a rational analyses and intentional program to deal with the problem. More often the solution is triggered by some external or fortuitous event. Then it is unstoppable! All the human reactions in these situations are depicted to the perfection in the book, from the observer who keeps lucid and distant (from the beginning tries to find out how the situation will evolve, and in the end tries to understand what could have been the cause for what happened and how it can happen again) to the conservative one (who starts by seeing the changes with fear and suspicion, but that when the changes are effective and the "fever" has passed keeps recalling the exciting times of the changes, trying to extend them in an artificial way), passing by the "ordinary" people (who live the fever of the big changes, but that with time go back to the normal life, forgetting to a big extent that things were once very different). You can find the "after" thoughts of Eugen Robick (not in the book, a present by Shuiten and Peeters available on the official site!) here.
Final remark: does the idea of a network growing and connecting people from separate worlds remind you something???
La Route d'Armilia
In the very beginning of this story we learn that there is a problem in a factory in the industrial town of Mylos, where one production unit is not producing enough. Meanwhile an expedition in zeppelin, from Mylos to Armilia, is about to start. Armilia is a town near the North pole, where, lost in the cold and desolation, men are waiting for a mysterious message that will save them. Ferdinand is the responsible for this important message, and he knows already the message by memory, just in case something wrong will happen. We know the details of his adventure by himself, since he is writing a kind of travel diary (this makes of "La route d'Armilia" a text-based book, even if the drawings are wonderful!). He finds in the zeppelin a young girl, Hella Jacobsen, that escaped from a factory (of zeppelins!). They become friends immediately, but Ferdinand hides the envelope containing the magic message from Hella and finishes by loosing it! And at that moment he forgets what was written in the message...
The trip passes on many other cities of the obscure continent (there is a nice map with the itinerary). We learn that life in Mylos is extremely hard, and the factory workers are supposed to work and nothing more. Acts like reading are considered dangerous and useless. The workers are physically connected to the machines, and so depend on them. The first principle of Mylos is something like "We need the machines like they need us. If we stop working they will stop, and if they stop we will die". It will be Mary von Rathen, the heroine of another book, that will liberalise the regime and will allow Mylos to come out of its isolation. But this we will not learn on this book. As for Armilia (the name is related to the "armillary" sphere), it is an almost desert town in the extreme North of the continent, but with a crucial role in the obscure world: it ensures the control of the "tempo" (the english translation is difficult to make, since the latin word stands for "time" and "weather". The ambiguity is used in the book, and Armilia controls the curious mixing of "time" and "weather"). The magic message carried by Ferdinand should allow the machinery controlling the "tempo" to restart working.
In this story we take some time to distinguish where is reality and imagination. The mixing is good, the idea simple, and the result superb. Besides the lesson of friendship and trust that comes out, this is a story on the saying "we are free while our imagination is free". I will borrow the next comments from José Eduardo Agualusa, a very good writer from Angola. Before the industrial revolution, there were in London butterflies of many and beautiful colours. However, after a few years only the grey ones survived, since, with the pollution, they could pass unnoticed and hide better. Under dictatorship, almost all men turn "grey", like London butterflies, to pass unnoticed and survive. What we learn in "La route d'Armilia" is that sometimes it is better not to turn grey and to take the risk of not surviving, but to be free and keep the colour instead!
Constant Abeels is a defender of progress. Nevertheless, when he finds out about gigantic projects to transform Brüsel with a series of great works and constructions (you can have an idea of what this changes mean by looking at the images of Brüsel) he doesn't feel too confortable with the dimension of the transformations proposed. He finishes by agreeing with Tina Tonero, an activiste against the works, by concluding that "they all got mad".
This is a very nice book with a severe criticism to the way some modern towns have developed (and are developing). In this book it is shown how to manipulate the notions of "audace", "modernity" and "progress" as to make all prudence look like "lack of vision" and to conclude that there is no such thing as a too ambitious project. But of course modernity is not a value by itself, it only makes sense when it is used at the service of mankind, and it is accompanied by good sense and care with people. If not, it is better to stay away from the "progress".
There is one thing that forces us not to look at this book merely as a tale: as it is written in the very first page of the book, "disturbing links unite Brüsel, the audacious metropolis of the obscure cities, and the town of Bruxelles, abandoned for more than 100 years to the appetite of the politicians and the property promoters". Therefore, Brüsel is the obscure city closer to a real world city. And we learn that many of works proposed to transform Brüsel were in fact proposed (and some completed) in Bruxelles!