by Rutu Modan
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (May 14, 2013)
Reviewed by Maya Klein
“To find something, you have to know what you are looking for,” says a character in The Property, the second full-length graphic novel by acclaimed artist and writer, Rutu Modan. The novel makes this assumption, along with numerous others, and subjects it to a form of scrutiny that is original to Modan – playful, while at the same time, remarkably telling.
The story follows Mica, a young Israeli woman, and her elderly grandmother Regina as they take a week-long trip to Warsaw to reclaim property owned by Regina’s family before World War II. Regina is the quintessential “Polish Lady”: prickly, mercurial, and oftentimes impossible; she is also an intelligent, loving grandparent and has an irresistibly dark sense of humor. Her granddaughter, Mica, possesses the same quick temper and sharp wit, and she is as gutsy, sarcastic and smart as she ought to be, even demonstrating her expertise in “Krav Maga,” a self-defense system.
Modan’s use of the medium is virtuoso; her talent in depicting visual detail – a slipped bra strap, a messenger-bag, or just the right pantsuit – is coupled with the manner in which she writes dialogue, expertly navigating the voices through three languages – Hebrew, English and Polish, which are denoted by changes in font. Each language is given its own particular, authentic inflection. For example, when Regina is stopped by Israeli airport security on account of her water bottle, she attacks the guard and says, “Rules – were they handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai?”
At their best, graphic novels delve deep into weighty issues, almost sneaking up on the reader with their significance, and The Property proves no exception. Like Spiegelman in his seminal MAUS (despite his reluctance to being cast in the role, Spiegelman is largely considered the father of the modern graphic novel), and like Satrapi in Persepolis, Modan makes full use of the freedom that the genre entails. In this deceptively quick read, potentially explosive issues relating to individual and national identity, history, and politics are all depicted in simple and convincing frames.
First, the novel raises the ethical dilemma regarding the legitimacy of using personal stories – taking real people’s pain – and turning it into art. This question is exacerbated when dealing with trauma that is both personal and collective, such as the Holocaust. The love affair that Mica has with Tomasz, a Polish artist whom she meets in Warsaw, brings the matter to light. Tomasz is working on a graphic novel, a rendering of the events of World War II from the Polish perspective. When Mica discovers that he has in fact been sketching her grandmother’s story, she becomes infuriated and suspicious, fearing Tomasz is merely using her to realize his artistic ambitions. He apologizes, but Mica, flinging his flowers in the trash, mutters, “I forgive but I don’t forget.”
Worldly and intelligent, Mica chooses words that are steeped in Holocaust discourse. The staying power of the narrative, the collective trauma and also, arguably, the sense of victimhood, persist in Israeli culture; they are closely tied to notions of personal identity and infiltrate the most intimate relationships. Through the character of Tomasz, the novel also seems to be asking ethical questions: Who is authorized to tell a story? And from which point of view? Does it really belong to anyone?
Indeed, the “property” that this graphic novel is concerned with undergoes a complete and comprehensive reconfiguration. As in English, the Hebrew word for property, “neches,” is also frequently used in its verb form, “lenaches” – to appropriate – and the journey that Regina and Mica take towards rightful ownership or re-appropriation is complex precisely because it does not merely pertain to tangible property.
An opening scene depicts the women’s flight to Warsaw. The plane is packed with rowdy high-school students on an educational tour of the concentration camps. When asked as to the purpose of their own trip, Regina and Mica adamantly deny that they are on any kind of “roots journey”: they say that their trip is purely business. The women are careful to set themselves apart from the sort of “concentration camp tourism” that is subject to scathing irony from Modan. The teenagers are going wild on the plane, one of them wearing a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” t-shirt, while another has “The March of Life, 2008” emblazoned on her back. Their schoolteacher nonchalantly ticks off the itinerary while munching on his breakfast roll. “Let’s see. . . Monday – Treblinka, Tuesday – Madjanek, gas chambers, etc. Personally, I prefer Madjanek to Auschwitz. It’s much scarier.”
Modan illustrates how the real horrors of war are subjected to the mechanisms of memorialization that are unable to do them justice. Memory and tragedy are appropriated, not by the artist figure (like Tomasz or perhaps Modan herself) but by a system, such as the Israeli educational system which has been entrusted to maintaining them. The result is a warped, flattened representation, with educators looking to frighten their disinterested young audiences into submission. Furthermore, as indicated by the re-enactment scene in the Jewish ghetto, the need to constantly up the ante, to titillate audiences so that they can experience “the real thing” is not limited to Israeli culture, or to desensitized youth thrice removed from the events. The desire to have an authentic experience of trauma results in grotesque farce. Hence, sighs the overzealous director of the society for Jewish memorialization, “I miss the ghetto.”
Though not stated explicitly, this issue is particularly relevant to politics and the Israeli political milieu, where Holocaust narratives and notions of victimhood have often been employed and are reintroduced on a regular basis. Examining the appropriation of memory is also an implicit form of critiquing the political forces that work to sustain them, and which perhaps, also benefit from their proliferation. The graphic novel, as a seemingly innocent form, provides a perfect vehicle for such a controversial message within the context of Jewish, and particularly, Israeli culture. In this sense, the book continues in the tradition of subversive graphic novels and uses its medium wisely, with striking imagery and heavy doses of irony.
The Property is undoubtedly a good book. It is included on more than ten best-of- the-year lists, including those of The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Salon, Amazon, and The Washington Post. It is well-deserving of the praise it has received. However, it is also an important book, illuminating the culture and the politics of appropriation that are at play within it.
In the end, in a final twist of irony, the protagonists reconnect with their pasts and uncover deep family secrets, but in the process, they relinquish the property that they came to claim, proving that sometimes, in order to find something, you have to give up what you were looking for.
Maya Klein is a writer and translator based in Tel Aviv. Her fiction has appeared in The Ilanot Review and The Literarian.