Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Personal in Rutu Modan's 'The Property.'

“It’s going to be the Polish ‘Persepolis,” Tomasz claims of the graphic novel about the Warsaw uprising. You can’t help but smile a little, recognizing this as perhaps not Tomasz on his work in progress, but Rutu Modan on The Property. The comparison feels natural, but on closer inspection becomes more and more blurred; Marjane Satrapi’s biographical Persepolis presents us with a monochrome story of an adolescent girl from 1970s Iran, very different to Rutu Modan’s 21st century Israeli protagonist Mica Segal, draped in Modan’s colourful style, reminiscient of a mixture of Georges Remi (or ‘Hergés’)’s The Adventures of Tin Tin mixed with the pop art style of Julian Opie on the Blue: the Best of cover. Bodies, clothes and surroundings are kept realistic, while faces are playful and sometimes exaggerated, especially noses. One strong similarity between the two texts is the unflinching and all-telling demonstration of a story of the Personal.
            The story follows Mica Segal and her grandmother, Regina, leave Ben-Gurion airport in Israel (the date is kept ambiguous as “200X.)” The internal conflicts of the region are not mentioned in the story; I have not read it, but Modan’s other work, Exit Wounds seems to deal with this more directly. The only real hint is when Mr. Popowski instigates a Krav Maga block from Mica upon learning that she is from Israel. They are heading to Regina’s native Poland, a country she left before WWII for Israel, to reclaim ‘the property’; a building that Regina’s parents owned before the war. Avram Yogdavik, an overbearing ‘friend’ of Mica’s auntie Tzilla, tags along. Mica meets Tomasz, a young Polish man giving tours of Jewish Warsaw while hiding away from Yogdavik, while Regina reconnects with a secretive past in the city.

            Right from the start we are given personal and emotive hooks; the inside covers display not an archetypal picture of Poland one might expect of the ‘Polish Persepolis,’ but an illustration of forests, houses, lakes and mountains in Sweden, complete with a little Swedish flag. Before reading the book this makes no sense, but comes to make sense as this luscious image of Sweden represents a deeply emotive point in Regina’s personal history. Even the epigraph has a personal nature, being from a family member of Modan’s.
            In the face of texts dealing with post-war Polish-Jewish identity such as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS (the only other similarity being Regina and Vladek’s shared stinginess of food,) we can see how difficult it is to pen a story of the Personal, of love, loss, and family. While embarking to locate the property, Mica suddenly witnesses a re-enactment of the Nazi’s forcing Jews onto a truck, shocking Mica and Avram into disbelief, with Avram almost forgetting that WWII is over and attacking one of the re-enacting Nazi soldiers. The history of WWII, the holocaust and uprisings against the Nazis is far from forgotten in the area, as Mica encounters tours, memorials, tourists and those in the business time and time again. Even Mica, when dealing with a melancholic Regina, brings up history as a cause before the Personal; “Is it because of Warsaw?... Is it because of dad?”

            The reader is shown both of Regina’s and Mica’s stories, in both written and pictoral form. It would be easy to make this redundant in the text, but Modan uses the scenario to bend language to exemplify the multitude of layers to the single story the reader gets. Three languages are used by the characters in the novel; Hebrew, Polish and English, each given their own font format. Mica can’t understand Polish, but speaks English and Hebrew; she speaks English with Tomasz, who also speaks Polish. Regina can talk Polish and Hebrew. Tomasz occasionally translates for Mica. When all characters are together and Polish is spoken, the reader is confronted with speech bubbles filled with squiggles, representing the incomprehensible Polish that Mica hears.
            Modan’s focus on the personal identity, history and times of the two main characters in the face of a messy multitude of factors that could easily creep in and weigh down the story creates not a ‘Polish Persepolis,’ but a unique story of emotion and self-reflection, that, yes, happens to be set in Poland, but is simply about the tragedies, victories, joys and frustrations that attach themselves to relationships with those we love and care about.


Night Before


It is late and the woman and her child pause at the fence to look at the sky. They are far from any roads, houses or cars so there is nothing but the light that emanates from burning stars and the moon in the sky. A wall of cloud rolls in, but soon dissipates, revealing many shooting stars streaking across the big deep blue. ‘shoo’en staa’ the child says. “Yes” the mother says, “shooting stars. Remember to make a wish.”


I am about to cross the road by Preston circus when I notice, on the other side of the pelican crossing, two men, one with beard one without, otherwise with the same colour and style hair, stood next to each other, definitely not together (one arrived just after the other) but wearing the exact niche outfit of white trousers, blue t-shirt, beige jacket. Matching colours and styles just stood there, waiting to cross the road as if nothing strange were going on. Desperately I look around for someone to share this moment with but the only other person crossing the road is a strange man talking angrily to his dog.


They wrap themselves in their beds in the winter, blankets on top, pyjamas underneath, with glasses of water on their bedside tables, and they set their alarms or don’t if they have nothing to wake up for, and they say “g’night” and they turn the light out and they roll over, and pretend to be asleep, eyes closed, still, warm, and they think about sleep and about dreaming and eventually it happens to them.


He is scruffy, unshaven, but not outrightly ‘punk’ looking. He has worn the same thing for days on end, shabby, rag ended and mush coloured. He is poor, but at the same time has made a conscious shift away from any fashion or trend. He is watching the band, Subhumans, whose anarchist lyrics depressingly tell as much about the current societal situation as when they were written nearly forty years ago. But he is also watching the crowd; the old punks, who wear their outfits almost like a uniform, like they are obliged to don their tartan trousers and leather jacket with a perfectly sprayed band logo on the back, and spike their mohawks or reverse mohawks or dye their hair orange. Punk’s not dead, but the pointless, pub-rocky, day-glo punk of the early seventies means nothing to him. The bands on stage have probably written memoirs and their history has been academically chronicled as part of an era. Eras merge into one, so there is as little point insisting on the present as there is wallowing in the past. There’s a lot to sing about, and a lot of new sounds to make.


I get up with her early, and make us coffee. I make our breakfasts and a cheese sandwhich for her lunch. It’s 6:56am when we eat. I sit around browsing the internet while she gets ready in the bathroom. Still dark outside. I have nowhere to be but she needs a ride to work. We head to the car; it’s freezing. Radio on- another crash on the M5, more delays. Commuters grumble without thinking about the true horror of the crash victims beyond their own invconvenience. I drop her off in Bath, and the sun rises over frosty fields as I drive back. I can see my breath in the car. Radio off.


“A paycheck ago I was a paycheck away from this!” She’s not really drunk, but holding the bottle and just pretending was just as good, kept you babbling, smiling, warm. All the houses on the street are dark, everyone gone to bed. The streetlights are on, asides from the one nearest to her, which is broken. Above her stretches the red brick arch, heavy with ivy and moss. Framed below the arch and above terraced housing stretching into the distance, she sees the moon, and raises her bottle to it. “a paycheck… like a big pizza pie…” She stops her babbling, and lowers the bottle, really looking at the moon, looking into the night sky at the moon. “There you are.”


Saturday, 21 October 2017

Lí Ban

The memories rise above the surface of all others, overwhelmingly clear. She stands on the small pebble beach off the woods by the Blackwater River straddling the border between county Cork and county Waterford, bright in her old, waxy yellow raincoat, staring out across the dark swathe of water at the opposite bank heavy with foliage. Near the water, a small shack has become consumed with shrubbery, rendered inaccessible.
            Admittedly, as I traipse down the wide promenade receiving a forceful flow of sea gusts, my memory of that visit to Youghal years ago isn’t impeccable. I remember that to get to that little beach we had to walk along the motorway verge, which made me well and broil with anxiety. I remember a small rocky bay in Youghal itself, and the great green beach head jutting into the sea on the opposite side of the estuary. But I can’t remember visiting South-East Ireland with a girl in a bright yellow raincoat, and, until this day, feel that the view from the small pebble riverbank was uninterrupted by such a dandelion figure; I had stood at the edge and watched the swarthy weeds swirl in the dark water. I had skimmed stones across its flat surface.
            Two years ago? Three years ago? I feel that it had been September, and in a year where I had embarked on some sudden bout of small adventures abroad, after a decade grounded. I found myself quietly walking down the streets of Oslo, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Edinburgh… It was for the cities in the night-time, preferably freezing cold too. At least that’s what I remember most from these cities; beautiful lights in a cold night sky that felt light, and silent.
            I dig my hands into my pockets in futile protection against the winds that bring in winter. I find that they are littered with holes. Barely anyone is out on the coast, but it doesn’t feel empty. What does feel empty? Concrete car parks. Corridors in Dental clinics. Shopping malls after close. I  tread from ‘empty spaces’ to ‘humanless spaces.’ I can see fields of spider webs lying low on the grass, rippling in an autumn ray of sunlight. I can see a deer browsing in the boundary of a wood, raising its head in alarm at a twig crunching. I remember the dense bramble on the other side of the Blackwater river, devouring that small shack, aswarm with kittiwakes and crabs and the occasional heron, when I see her, luminescent in that raincoat amidst the November grey in early evening, on the coast, in the real, filled out and fleshed in front of me. The yellow of her coat obliterates the greenery that gently rolled in my imagination; it reasserts herself falsely into my benign tidings over my trip to Youghal. My throat readies to pulse out questions; who are you, have we met, have we stood on a small pebble beach on the Blackwater river straddling county Cork and county Wateford in the Republic of Ireland and gazed at the heavy shrubbery on the opposite bank, when her hand quickly rises to my face, placing a single finger on my lips in hush.

            Slowly, she cranes her neck to look over the coast. I’m trying to remember her but there is sadly nothing to remember, just a blaring image in my brain of an event somehow spliced with imagination. I look at her face, which stares sternly over the water swashing onto the beach. I feel a drop, then a downpour gushes upon us, and her finger is withdrawn from my lips as she relents her serious face into a smile. The rain dribbles down the outside of her waxy yellow raincoat.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Early Novel Sample

A sample of one of three novels I started and failed to complete in the past five years or so. This one was the most recent, and I do think about returning to it, editing and completing it. A lot of the story is lost to me now and also I think differently about characters, their situations and their voices. 

I slam the flat sole of my boot against the door, crunching it open, and as soon as I’m in the man leaps on me and I grunt and we fall instantly to the floor but I catch him good with my elbow sending his bottom two teeth out and he loosens his grip and I’m up and I use the my boot again against his head this time. Then the other man bounds over and catches me in the chest but not low enough to do much but rattle and ache so I bung out one with my right and then a low one with my left and then the boot again.
            I’m wearing all the clothes I own; one pair of underwear, one pair of socks (one sock missing heel,) one pair of long underwear, one grey t-shirt, one navy blue sweatshirt, one workcoat, a pair of jeans and the boots. Winter is eating in, but right now I am sweating, lumbering around the room as men leap out of nowhere, catching me good, but never good enough for them.
            “Joseph!” The only person ever to call me Joseph. “You fucking nut you was supposed to be quiet!” He rants as we clear the room looking. We are looking for signs that these men had something to do with a crime. The kidnapping of my sister. I lean into the bathroom. The ceramic of the bath has been completely shattered, while the sink hangs off of the wall, linked by gurgling copper pipes, and scraps of dusty plaster. The ceramic lid to the toilet cistern is missing. There is piss in the toilet, and underneath that, rust or limescale that has eaten into or attached itself to the rotten ceramic, apart from a clear, undamaged shape, like a bird spreading its wings. Davy pushes past me and starts pissing with me in the room.
            “Fucks sake.” Could barely hear him over the urine hitting water. The bath is filled with some sort of chemical, surrounded by glass piping and beakers like in school. Davy reckons it’s to make some drug or other. The motel’s been abandoned for a long time; cats roam around, relaxed and happy, unafraid, collarless, ceaselessly breeding and defecating. Through the doorway in this lighting the world looks grey, and cold.
            My sister found employment in the honourable, dreamlike way. She was the eldest of us; me, my second eldest sister Lou, and my eldest sister, Wend. While I was rumbling through the bush and Lou was gathering clay, Wend was always on the field, darting over other players, striking the ugly puff of a ball in between the goalposts time after time and time; it was not a surprise when she was seriously noticed, and less of a surprise when she moved out into the town, still young, to train all day, to hone the blade that is this talent she owns. Davy says this is why she has been kidnapped; she represents a lot of money, a lot of skill.
            My father didn’t follow football, but respected sport. Every Tuesday and Thursday, after he got back from work, after all the niggles had been fixed around the house, after all the gardening had been done, after all the mouths had been fed, he’d disappear to the boxing gym. Occasionally, he’d have a match on Saturday. Usually he’d win, but occasionally he’d lose, and be unseen, holed up in his room from shame and unable to move without pain. Then he’d emerge again, making jokes about him and Wendy swapping sports; she could only kick her boxing opponents and he only punch the ball and the referee. Davy would laugh.
            Davy would sit at the table in his vest, the tattoo of our home district’s coat of arms on his shoulder, and grumble about my father’s boxing. “With them gloves on, might as well be fighting with numb stumps on the end of your arm. There’s no wrist in it, it’s just shoulder and bicep.” Here he’d flex his own hands, his knuckles worn and scarred. “Can’t kill a man with your bare fists. Hurts too much. You’re taking a share of the hit.” Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night uncle Davy would be at the Red Lion, a damp and flat-roofed pub in town. He wouldn’t drink much, but at the sign of a few knowing glances, would descend into the basement, to face a challenger in a bareknuckle fight. Once he took me with him, when I was about sixteen. If both contenders were still conscious at the end of the fight, they embraced, they smiled, bloody, teeth missing, gristle and bone crunched and misaligned. My mother threw a bowl at Davy’s head when he brought me back. Strangely, that bowl gave him the only scar on his face, just above his left eyebrow.
            I would never watch my father fight. Watching Davy fight was flesh on flesh, bone on bone. To me, my father’s strength was used to heave buildings into sway in the villages of the county, to tear the Earth in the garden to feed us, to hold my mother tightly with great bursts of emotion, to lift the children up, to shake hands and pat backs. I didn’t like to think of those dexterous and calloused hands swathed in padded leather, pounding a man’s face, surrounded by nameless spectators, a crowd stitched out of many tuxedoes .
            Yet it was the reverse pounding which took effect. In one particular month, my father took shelter in his room for a fortnight altogether, a week each after two separate fights. After he felt rid of shame and pain after the second bout of loss, he returned to work, unbruised, unscarred; healed. He picked up a load of bricks, and headed up the scaffolding, in his usual careful way. He carefully stepped off the ladder, carefully hollered that the ‘Bricks’re up boys,’ then carefully set them down, then carefully stood up. Upon standing, after a series of hurling many punches, and receiving much more, finally something, some nerve or blood vessel, failed in a more basic task. Anywhere else and we’d have been laughing, consoling, smiling. But at the top of the scaffolding, my Father lost consciousness, and tottered over, diving into the brick heap, his solidity, his strength, crumpled against the misshapen piling of stone.
            A year later, we’re all working; Wend is rising in the world of football, working part time; Lou is working part time, studying part time, and I am working full time, for the same group my father worked with. Perhaps as a sympathetic gesture, or more likely the assumption that skill could be hereditary. Sons often follow their fathers. We all work on the garden, we all bring the earth to fruit.

            Davy came to dinner and visited often anyway, but now he’s here at least every other day. He takes Lou to school and Wend to football practise, he helps out in the garden and around the house. He fixed up the old truck; our Dad walked everywhere anyway, and so when the truck broke down it never crossed his mind to get it fixed. Mam worked part-time in a school in a town in the next county. I’d still find her sat on the bed, looking out the window at the garden, or the fields, frozen in some movement; folding clothes, getting dressed. I knew who was in her thoughts; he’ll live forever in her.