By Derek Royal
Rutu Modan is one of Israel’s most notable comics artist, and she is certainly the nation’s most visible representative in the United States. First gaining recognition as a co-founder (along with Yirmi Pinkus) of the Actus Tragicus collective in 1995, she has since gone on to distinguish herself as a solo creator, specifically with Exit Wounds (2007) and the collection Jamilti and Other Stories (2008). Her work has also been featured in The New York Times‘ blog, “Mixed Emotions” (2007), and in the now defunct “Funny Pages” section of The New York Times Magazine, “The Murder of the Terminal Patient” (2008). In May of this year she released her second long-form work, The Property (Drawn & Quarterly). It is the story of Regina Segal and her granddaughter, Mica, who travel to Warsaw for seven days to recover something her family lost during the Second World War. Having emigrated to Israel with her parents right before the outbreak of the conflict, Regina is divorced from the horrors that confronted other Polish Jews and their families. Over fifty years later she returns to her birthplace for what at first appears to be a simple act of property reclamation, but ends up becoming an emotional and highly personal journey that neither she nor Mica anticipated.
That last sentence has a ring of the cliché to it, and it is to Modan’s great credit that her narrative never falls prey to that tendency. The story’s premise may seem overly familiar to those acquainted with Holocaust literature or the writings of second-generation survivors, but The Promise is not really a book about Holocaust or its “after.” It is first and foremost about a woman who lost her lover and now ventures back to confront those choices that ended the affair. The reality of the Holocaust is always there as the story’s backdrop, but it is never given center stage as the narrative’s modus operandi. Unlike other Shoah or second-generation novels, this is not the story of a survivor who returns to confront a horrific past or a child of survivors who must witness the source of her family’s disfunction. Modan gives us the potential for that kind of narrative through Regina and the younger Mica, but her concern here is much more localized and idiosyncratic. We can see this through the figure of Avram Yagodnik, Regina’s future son-in-law who just happens to be traveling to Warsaw at the same time for a cantor’s convention. He more than any other character in the book represents a post-Holocaust awareness of Jewish identity. He is actually traveling to Warsaw for the same ostensible reason as Regina and Mica, to recover the family’s stolen property, but he does so clandestinely and more within the context of Jewish justice (even though his real reasons for reclaiming the property, as we come to find out, are just as personal, albeit less emotional, then Regina’s). Modan’s inversion of the post-Holocaust journey convention is perhaps best seen toward the end of the book, where Regina, Mica, Avram, and Mica’s new Polish (boy)friend, Tomasz, are at a crowded cemetery for Zaduszki (the Polish day of the prayer for souls). In the midst of everyone honoring the dead, Avram breaks out with a Jewish funeral prayer — he is a cantor, after all — that is often sung throughout Israel at Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies. What at first could be read as an act of Jewish reappropriation becomes a misguided, and comedic, attempt at ethnic affirmation. Regina hits Avram in mid-prayer, and then calls him out for what he really is: another false claimant to her property. This event, along with the absence of any traumatic flashbacks — the only Nazis in this story are harmless actors recreating Ghetto scenes for the city’s Society for Jewish Memorialization — and the total lack of Polish anti-Semitism, all suggest an ironic and highly nuanced kind of post-Holocaust narrative.
At the same time there is a lot more going on in the book than just Regina’s confrontation with her past. Mica is arguably the story’s co-protagonist, and her relationship with the gentile Tomasz, as well as her reactions to Avram, place her in a Jewish context informed by generational differences. And Tomasz himself — especially Tomasz — stands out a key figure in the text. He is a comics artist who uses his job as a Warsaw Jewish tour guide as a source for his illustrations. He represents through his art both the current condition of the former Warsaw ghetto (especially the Jews who visit in commemoration) and Poland’s darker past, and with a sketchbook that includes romantic encounters as well as drawings of German soldiers and Gestapo figures. If one were looking for a stand-in for Modan and her relationship with the Jewish past, then Tomasz would be the first candidate.
In all, The Property is an ambitious book comprising diverse figures and conflicting motives. And Modan’s art, reminiscent of the ligne claire style yet more realistic in its expression, certainly carries the weight of the story. It may have been more than five years since Rutu Modan’s last novelistic work, but the payoff here is more than worth the wait.