Fiery fam­ily Fam­ily af­fairs

A feisty se­nior and her be­fud­dled over a ‘lost’ fam­ily prop­erty. Be­fud­dled grand­daugh­ter con­nect while tus­s­ling with each other

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by DAVIN ARUL star2@thes­tar.com.my The Prop­erty Writer/artist: Rutu Mo­dan Publisher: Drawn & Quar­terly, 222 pages

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.

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