By Derek Royal
In 2006 Drawn & Quarterly published Miriam Katin’s We Are on Our Own, the artist’s account of her experiences following the German occupation of Budapest in 1944. As recounted in this graphic memoir, Katin and her mother, Hungarian Jews, hid from the invading forces and survived any way they could. Now, the author has published a new volume about the aftereffects of that traumatic experience. Letting It Go (also published by Drawn & Quarterly) is the story of Katin’s present-day relationship with German history and her attempts to come to terms with the anger she harbors. While the latest book is not strictly a follow up to We Are on Our Own, we nonetheless see the artist irrevocably marked by her childhood experiences and and using her art as a response to that condition.
Unlike the earlier memoir, with traditionally arranged panels predominantly reliant on impressionistic gray tones — only the brief contemporary scenes, taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are entirely in color — the layout of Letting It Go is more fluid and more brightly colored. The panel-less composition suggests a free-flowing narrative, where the experiences of a now middle-aged Miriam wander from one daily concern to the next. The main storyline concerns her grown son, Ilan, and his decision to move to Berlin with his Swedish girlfriend, Tinet. Miriam cannot understand why a Jew would want to live in what was once the heart of Nazism, and she spends the better part of the narrative nurturing animosity for the German people while at the same time trying to temper that reaction for the well-being of her family. She and her husband travel to Berlin twice — once specifically to visit Ilan and a second time to attend a gallery exhibit including her art — and both times she is torn between her anti-German gut and her fascination of how modern and egalitarian Berlin has become. While we get the impression at the end of the book that Miriam, if not completely won over, then at least comes to terms with her hostilities, there are nonetheless lingering doubts that she can ever leave her trauma behind. Both times when she visits Berlin she is stuck by some unaccountable ailment — the first time it is uncontrollable diarrhea, and the second it is a nagging rash — suggesting that while she may seem to move beyond her animosities, there will always be that part of her experience forever below the surface, manifesting itself in unpredictable ways.
We find in Letting It Go a Miriam who, despite her hardened feelings, is at times carefree and playful. It is a side of her story that is understandably absent from her Holocaust memoir. This tone is underscored by Katin’s art, which at times is reminiscent of the children’s books she has illustrated (such as The Little Brown Jay and Tubes in My Ears) or her designing work for Disney and MTV animations. Letting It Go even ends on a whimsical note (bugs are involved), while at the same time alluding to an earlier image (more bugs) linked directly to her childhood traumas. In fact, the entire text rests upon this uneasy juxtaposition of the fatal and the inspirational. For those still wondering about the wounds manifest in We Are on Our Own, Miriam Katin’s latest work provides a brief commentary on those scars.