Fiery family Family affairs
A feisty senior and her befuddled over a ‘lost’ family property. Befuddled granddaughter connect while tussling with each other
ASECRETIVE, cranky grandmother and her strong-willed granddaughter seem like an unlikely pair on which to pin a 222-page graphic novel, but Rutu Modan ( Exit Wounds) does just that, and this comparatively weighty tome is a breeze to read. Yet you’ll find yourself frequently going back to previous chapters – or days, into which the story is divided – to re-read a particular passage or look for something that is referred to further along in the story.
It’s amazing how much detail and emotional nuance Modan manages to pack into each panel with her simple and clean style. Her characters’ expressions and posture speak volumes and her dialogue is pitch-perfect as this romantic-comedic mystery unfolds.
After her son’s death from cancer, Regina Segal decides to head back to Warsaw, Poland, to reclaim some property that was lost during World War Two. But it soon becomes clear that Regina – a Jew who was sent to Palestine as a young woman to escape the German invasion – has another motive for going back to her birthplace.
“I couldn’t care less about Warsaw. It’s one big cemetery,” she declares to a fellow passenger on the flight over from Israel. Prophetic words, as the story’s various threads converge in a cemetery on the Polish day of the dead, Zaduszki; as for whether or not Regina eventually comes to care, well, that’s something best found out by joining her on this journey.
It’s not a smooth passage. Regina is a cantankerous sort, and prone to shutting out her granddaughter Mica to an almost inhumanly cruel degree.
When we first meet this golden girl, she’s holding up the security-check queue at the airport simply because she refuses to give up her newly-purchased bottle of water as required by air travel regulations.
She finally decides to drink the (large) bottle dry before proceeding through the security
checkpoint, to which one impatient traveller behind her remarks: “Let’s hope her diaper doesn’t leak.” When everyone else has a good laugh at that, Mica whispers to the security officer that the man has drugs in his luggage.
That quite effectively sets the tone for the 200-plus pages to come. Regina is stubbornly insistent on certain things, while Mica finds herself often having to think fast to cope with the desperate situations that her grandmother gets them into (sometimes, strictly for personal satisfaction).
Throw in an overeager family friend with ulterior motives trying to get close to the women, a gentlemanly tour guide in Warsaw who becomes enamoured of Mica, and an elderly Polish gent who has some links to the family in the pre-war past, and that’s most of the graphic novel’s principal cast of characters.
There is a considerable degree of authenticity to the way Modan depicts them; not from a cultural standpoint, which many non-Israeli or non-Polish readers would be unfamiliar with anyway, but as finely-realised human beings with flaws, motivations, emotions and qualities both good and bad.
In fact, the character-driven plot will probably compel you to read this at a brisk pace.
There aren’t too many immediately likeable characters in here, yet after a little exposure to them, the reader really does begin to care – if not directly about them, then at least about finding out where their respective story arcs are headed.
If you’re thinking that this is going to be yet another Holocaust-based tale, well, it’s not, exactly. The Holocaust does inform some of the actions and perspectives of the players in
The Property, but at no time does it intrude into the story.
The major developments play out in the present day, and history is kept to its relevant and appropriate place.
There is, however, an initially startling scene when Mica steps out onto a modernday Warsaw street and suddenly finds herself among a group of people wearing yellow Stars of David being rounded up by German soldiers!
This odd and momentarily surreal diversion (relax, it has nothing to do with time travel or rips in the space-time continuum) does fit in nicely with the story, since it brings her to a vital discovery about her grandmother’s property.
The Property is said to be based on Modan’s own family experiences, although the only overt connection between story and inspiration lies in a quote attributed to her mother Michaela: “With family, you don’t have to tell the whole truth and it’s not considered lying.” Insightful words indeed.
This phenomenon of “notlying” within families is something everyone is familiar with, no doubt. Sometimes, it’s done to protect a memory or a reputation or even simply a perception; at other times, it may be done to shield the “tender” younger ones from events that
may be too damaging or shocking.
Many members of later generations tend to overlook the fact that their forebears lived full, eventful lives before they ever arrived on the scene and make judgments of these older folk based solely on what they perceive at the moment, or in recent memory.
Of course, at the same time, this whole familial thing of “not telling the whole truth” is becoming an increasingly difficult trick to pull off these days when everyone across multiple generations is connected and the truth has a habit of spilling out at inconvenient times.
On a more empathetic note, anyone who’s ever been regaled by stories of “those days” by an older relative would do well to reflect a little on how those events shaped the lives of their loved ones – and wonder, just a little, how much of the whole truth is being withheld, and why. By examining the “how much” and “why” that apply to this particular family unit, The Property provides a captivating example of how two disparate generations try to meet in that elusive middle ground. It won’t leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it will make you smile, and think about your own loved ones’ pasts. In that respect, it’s a laudable achievement.
The Property and The Victories are available at the graphic novel section of Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail ebd3_kbm@ kinokuniya.co.jp or visit www. kinokuniya.com/ my.
Goodness, Granny: The Property conveys loads of information about what its characters are thinking or feeling with minimal dialogue, and sometimes none at all.
A well-meaning pain, or a nosy parker with an ulterior motive? Mica wishing she’d never given this ‘family friend’ the time of day to begin with.