2015 Prix Artémesia Winner
How could it happen? That the question most frequently asked about the Nazi era. There are many answers, but it boils down to one thing: people looked away.
What puzzled Barbara Yelin, particularly after she found a box of her grandmother’s photos and correspondence, was how such an independently minded young woman could become complicit with the Nazi state. That’s the story she tells in Prix Artemesia winning graphic novel, Irmina. It is not her grandmother’s story, but it is one explanation of how it could have happened to one individual.
Irmina is a substantial work – a graphic novel, just shy of 275 pages, divided into three sections. The first tells of Irmina’s time in Britain, attending secretarial college. She is not from a wealthy family, her allowance just enough to let her get by. When the Nazis forbid monetary transfers out of the country, Irmina is on borrowed time. However, this time is probably the happiest of her life – she has fallen in love, with a student called Howard. A coloured man from Barbados. In the 1930s, a relationship that must be kept secret. In addition Howard, although a student at Oxford, is frequently racially abused. He can’t fight it, must turn the other cheek or else he will be thrown out of college. This makes Irmina’s blood boil.
Which is all the more ironic, in view of the way she behaves after she is forced to return to Germany. Her intention is to return to Britain and Howard as soon as she can. For that she needs a well-paying job ..l and she finds the offer of a job at The Ministry of War – despite her reservations about Hitler’s regime – too good to refuse. Especially with the prospect of a transfer to the London consulate. Hmm – it soon transpires that she’s too useful to let go. By the time she’s saved enough for her passage, Howard is gone, and Irmina’s only option is to stay in Germany.
Marriage to an SS officer follows, a son and all the accompanying darkness. Some commentators have argued that Irmina only toes the line to keep her son safe, that she never really bought into the ideology. I’m not sure. Page 203 shocked me.
Part 3 takes places many years later. The widowed Irmina lives alone, her son having long flown the nest. She is approaching retirement, when suddenly she receives an unexpected invitation to Barbados, from Howard! This section not only answers all the questions about the past – why he disappeared, what he made of his life, but also contrasts the two, for Howard didn’t sell out on his earlier ideals and has made a positive difference to himself and others in post-colonial Caribbean.
That’s the political interpretation of Irmina. Then there’s a feminist one, which argues she acts as she does simply because there was no other option in the sexist, misogynist world of that time. (More details here.)
Hmmm – I’m not willing to absolve her so easily. The thing is, you never know how you will react, until you’re in the situation yourself.
Whichever way you look at it, Irmina, is complex and thought-provoking with literary story-telling flourishes too: mirroring in the way she meets the two men in her life, parallels in the last panel of each section. I’m not qualified to point out the finesses of colour palettes to reflect mood and the significance of panel size choice. No, best you hear all about that from the artist/author herself.