Variant Distances

July 19, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

I recently finished two graphic novel series centering on World War II. The first, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa (pub. in various magazines between 1973 and 1985) is an 8 part series following the life of a six year-old boy who lived in Hiroshima in 1945. Having watched his father, sister and little brother die in the flames, Gen and his mother  struggle to survive in the aftermath of nuclear destruction. Part of what is evident over the course of the books is how people organize themselves when the traditional government structures have, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. That too is evident in Maus. Maus focuses on the western world–told in the first person by Art Spiegelman, the son of a holocaust survivor. Over the course of two books, Art slowly pieces together his father, Vladeck’s, historical experience as he and Art’s mother move from place to place, trying to evade the Nazi’s, until they are finally picked up and brought to Auschwitz. Here too, one of the main themes is bartering and power–the way human kindness, even, becomes a strategic tool for survival. Obviously there is so much to be said for both of these works. I certainly do not feel equipped to start down that road. However I feel more confident talking about the  device of perspective used in each.

What I found immediately interesting is that because Maus is a result of a conversation, i.e. that the reader’s place is with the son, Art, listening to Vladeck, in a safe, domestic, home years and years after the war, it feels like an infinitely easier book to inhabit–at first. Vladeck stands as a known end to the story, there is an assumption that everything will be OK despite the intermediary trauma.Perhaps mirroring that thread, the autobiographical narrative slowly worsens. Vladeck and his wife and family slowly lose their civil liberties, until of course they are left with absolutely nothing in the final parts of the book. Similarly, a recurring but subtle question raises its head as the book goes on, did Vladeck really survive? What did he lose of himself? And, perhaps most important, what does “survival” mean?

By contrast, Gen is a child when the Americans drop the atomic bomb. The reader stands next to him, inhabiting his immediate experience over the next several years. There is no guarantee that he will survive. Furthermore the destruction is an all but instantaneous and gruesome disruption of “normal” life.

The terror here lies in the memory, the ghosts of what used to be a vibrant city, the ensuing disease that perplexes everyone as their hair falls out, or they get cancer without any recourse for medical attention. And, further, the struggle for food and income, in order to sustain oneself. In this instance you there is no end in sight, we’ve no idea if Gen will survive and end up in an apartment somewhere. The ordeal could go on forever. Yet, unlike Maus things do get incrementally better.

Part of that distinction between the direct narrative (i.e. Gen) vs. the mediated biography of Spiegelman must come, I suspect, from the respective positions of the authors. Whereas Art Spiegelman is the son of a survivor, Keiji Nakazawa is a survivor himself–the Barefoot Gen series is loosely based on his own experience. Which points to another interesting point about historical perspective, the telling of, especially trauma, and how delicate it can be to pass on stories of cultural significance that so deeply influence and identify  an individual that to tell them as one’s own becomes a kind of trespass. That though, is another subject, and I’m pretty excited to read more in the Spectral Evidence book, as I know that there are a number of chapters dedicated to the issue of photographing traumatic places.

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