Review: Kleist’s The Boxer

The Boxer,

Reinhard Kleist,

SelfMadeHero

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One day, I’ll tell you everything.

Hertzko (later anglicised to ‘Harry’) Haft tells his son these words in the bright Florida sunshine of Miami in 1963. But it would be decades before his son actually found out why his father insisted he accompany him on this Florida road trip and what it was he wanted to tell him but simply couldn’t. That promise to tell his son everything circles The Boxer, the latest work by Reinhard Kleist, one of the brightest stars on the German comics scene. Kleist first came to our attention with his remarkable graphic biography of Johnny Cash, which was the first European comics work SelfMadeHero translated and republished in English (thankfully the first of a number of excellent foreign language works they have brought to English language readers). If, like me, you really dislike boxing, don’t be put off by the title and the pugilistic pose on the cover – yes, there is boxing in here, but in truth that sport isn’t really what the book is about, despite the title. This is a story about survival against the odds, from wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland to the nightmare of the death camps to reaching America after the war and finding that yes, you can make it there, but it too is full of tricksters and scammers and people out to make a buck out of you.

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Part of what makes The Boxer so fascinating is that Kleist, bravely in my opinion, has chosen a pretty unsympathetic subject for his later graphical biography. Harry is really not a very likeable character, even as a young lad in Poland, he’s aggressive, loud, quick to anger, quick to resort to force. Sure, life is tough in their village, especially for Jews (even before the Nazi occupation, as Maus documented years ago, there was a lot of anti-Semitism there already), but although it is tough going Harry seems to take it worse than his siblings, the chip on his shoulder is large, right from the start, and in truth he never really shakes it, even when he settles in America years later, beating all the odds that saw so many millions die horribly, reduced to ash and leftover personal effects.

But this nature is also part of what drives Harry, that makes him survive – of course there is luck in this too, why one man is picked and not others for one detail or another in the camps, but he works hard, and he hardens himself still further to endure what will come because it is the only way he can even hope to make it out the other end of this hell. And for a while he is in hell, a hell even Satan would have shaken his head in despair over, a hell made by men who had become worse than any demons. Shave-headed, in the striped, thin prisoner uniform, he and others chosen for work rather than immeadite extermination are marched to the building housing the ovens to clear them out. It’s one of the most horrific scenes in the book, executed in very heavy sweeps of black ink as the horrified prisoners are shown the ovens, and what it is burning there, exiting the chimney as nothing more than black soot now – human beings. Even stoic Harry breaks at this point:

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We were lead to the building with the chimney that darkened the sky… I regretted being alive…”

But he does make it through – an SS guard takes a shine to him, and uses Harry’s natural talents to his own ends. Before being caught he and his brothers regularly smuggled black market goods and in exchange for better treatment and food this SS officer uses his services and makes himself a good bit of money on the side. And then comes the boxing match. Seen as a fighter Harry is supposed to fight a guard, a spectacle to entertain the SS men at the concentration camps. Except it isn’t a guard, it is an other prisoner, half-starved – a mirror of him if he hadn’t entered into this deal. And if he doesn’t fight the poor man he knows both can expect a pistol shot to the head, so he fights, and he hates himself for it, but he fights, he wins, he lives, he has to do it again and again… What will we do to survive, what price will we pay? This is no easy choice, no coward’s way out, this is another horror he has to endure.

After the war finding little sign of his family or the girl he was hoping to marry before the war he manages to flee to America by himself, to start a new life, and his boxing seems, as it has to generations of working class lads, to be a way out of the bottom of society, to make something of himself, stand out, be a man, earn both money and respect. But even here there are goons with guns and muscle and Harry, struggling to make a rep for himself and get those big fights that can make his career, finds it is all run by gangsters are cruel and lethal as those SS guards cheering the boxing in the camps. You take a dive when they say or your body will be found floating in the Hudson. Make a stand, make that name for yourself. But maybe also end up dead very quickly too… After enduring and surviving so much Harry has to ask himself what’s more important, making that career or making sure he lives…

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It’s a hard read – not just because of the subject matter like the death camps, which is horrific enough, but, as I said, with Harry not being terribly sympathetic as a character. But with what he goes through you still root for him. You wish he would open up a bit more, lose those rough edges which are surely holding him back from enjoying life more once he is free, but then again those are the parts of him which helped him survive… It’s also about a father’s inability to talk emotionally with his son – men historically not the best at that emotional truth thing, even with their own flesh and blood, and of course in that era it was even more unusual for a man to open up like that, even to his oldest son, not just because what he has to say is awful but because it simply wasn’t what men did. And the mystery of that Miami trip with his son? That you have to read for yourself, but suffice to say it offers up a serious emotional punch. Yes, it’s a hard read, but a very powerful and deeply moving one too, a remarkable work from one of the finest young talents coming out of the European comics scene right now.

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D-Day

Today is June the 6th; to a boy who had seemingly endless amounts of Warlord, Victor, Action and Commando war adventure comics to read growing up it’s a historic date drummed into the memory: D-Day. Despite what criticisms a modern reader could heap on those old comics they did impart a fair chunk of familiarity with major events so that when you came to them in history lessons in school you realised you already knew some of it. D-Day for me has always remained in my mind since first reading about it as a lad, an unbelievable effort by thousands by land, sea and air on a daring but desperate attempt to breach Fortress Europe and drive the vile evil of the Nazis back to their own bombed out ruins of their homeland. It’s passed almost into myth now, decades on, the vast armada of Allied ships appearing off the coast of France in the morning mist, like the fabled thousand ships of Homer’s Odyssey arriving on the shores of Troy. A lot of mostly young lads wouldn’t last through that day.

Of course as I got older I learned more about that history and found out that well before the thousands of British, Canadian and American troops stormed the shores of Nazi occupied France that day many other very brave men had risked – sometimes lost – their lives to make it possible. Not just the veterans of the Dieppe raid, but smaller, quieter missions, often carried out in secret, in the dark of night – French Resistance members risking capture and torture before death on missions to disrupt German lines or supply information to D-day planners, Commando or SIS members sneaking ashore to take samples of a beach to see if it could support a landing, masses of men, tanks… More than a few would vanish into the dark night and never be seen again, dying somewhere alone, unknown, to try and make that day possible, while others orchestrated astonishing projects of disinformation, stage magicians designing the greatest illusions of their lives, entire fake regiments of tanks and men made of mannequins and inflatables to fool the German aircraft into the Allied intentions. The sheer effort that went into planning the entire thing even before the actual landing is Herculean and it is astonishing to look back at a time when everyone just simply got on with ‘doing their bit’ for the greater good in a way that seems amazing to today’s far more selfish me-me-me society. And through it all these amazing photographs by one of my great photography heroes, Robert Capa, running ashore at bloody Omaha with the troops, terrified, fingers fumbling to reload his film… He shot several roles, escaped the beach and returned to London only for the developer to rush the film and ruin most of them – only a handful of shots, blurred, survived, first hand images from the beaches of D-Day, the day the Allies started to change history and roll back the Nazi menace with a mixture of cunning intelligence use, amazing engineering projects and sheer, naked courage (think of the Scottish regiments marching ashore under fire defiantly playing the bagpipes, like something from a movie scene and yet it really happened) and quite enormous cost. A cost paid for us, for the right to live in a free, democratic society. It should always be remembered.

And there is the legendary Robert Capa himself, having a ciggie break between combat coverage. Hard enough to imagine having to rush ashore into withering fire as you carry your rifle and pack, but imagine rushing ashore between machine gun fire and shells exploding, mines underfoot, and you are armed only with a 35MM camera. And yet Capa and others did and because of them we have these visual images to remind later generations of the debt that was paid for the future generations to come after them, a debt of blood paid so we would grow up never having to do what they had to. No muscled superheroes or supersoldiers like Captain America, just ordinary blokes from the streets of Glasgow, London, Cardiff, Toronto, Chicago, New York and many others, ordinary men doing extraordinary things…

Midway

Classic war film The Battle of Midway was on this weekend and as the feature film uses some genuine wartime footage (notably in the ariel combat scenes) it reminded me of the legendary Hollywood director John Ford, who shot some of the most famous American films of the mid 20th century (and is largely responsible for the visual look of the classic Western). Ford volunteered to take a documentary film crew to the tiny island of Midway ahead of the expected Japanese attack, to record it for the US Navy. He didn’t just make fictional tales of combat and heroism, he actually dodged bullets and bombs to record what would be a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific, when the US fleet, so badly damaged after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbour the year before, struck back and seriously wounded the seemingly omnipotent Imperial Japanese Navy. The war in the Pacific would rage on for several more bloody years and cost both sides dearly, but this was one of those pivotal moments when the Americans showed their enemies that they weren’t the soft, decadent people they had assumed but a ferocious force determined to finish what the bad guys had started (ah, the days when we didn’t worry about the morality of US foreign policy because it was a clear cut us and them, good guys versus the bad guys war…). Checking the web I found you can actually watch Ford’s original short documentary footage online – no CGI and special effects here, no actors who have spent a few weeks in a mock boot camp to be trained, this is the real thing and recorded at enormous risk. Makes James Cameron going to the depths of the oceans in a submersible look kind of tame in directing derring-do terms, doesn’t it?

PM apologies for Turing

A while ago a petition was started on the 10 Downing Street site asking for the British government to do something posthumously about the great Alan Turing. Turing wasn’t just a genius – an astonishing mathematician, one of the fathers of computing (this in the 1940s, mark you), early thinker in Artificial Intelligence and a legendary codebreaker whose work in the incredibly secret world of BletchleyPark’s Station X was an enormous part of the Allied effort in the Second World War. In fact it is no exaggeration to state without the work of Turing and his fellows there is a very real chance the good guys might not have won, or at the very least the war would have run far longer, claiming many more lives (and imagine if Nazi Germany had lasted another 2 or 3 years, imagine if they had time to fully develop their new fast jet fighters to attack Allied bombers, expand their V2 rockets which there was no defence against, continue atomic experiments… It doesn’t bear thinking about).

There is a part in Neal Stephenson’s fascinating Cryptomonicon, a novel which, like his later (although set in earlier period) Baroque Cycle mixes real historical figures with fictional to create a tale richly detailed with extensively researched history, where those working with Turing in the race to decode the German Enigma codes ponders what they do. At first he thought their team was fighting the shadow war while the real war raged in the skies and seas and land. Then he starts to realise what they are doing, shadowy and theoretical as much of it is, is the real war: fates of convoys, great warships, divisions of troops, even the fates of nations depend on what they are doing behind the scenes.

For his enormous contribution to saving his nation and invaluable intelligence in defeating the most odious, vile threat the free world has faced Turing was persecuted by his country. Alan Turing was homosexual, at a time when it was not just treated as unacceptable by society but actually a criminal offence. His security clearance was revoked, he was hounded, subjected to a ridiculous snake-oil ‘cure’ which was effectively a form of chemical castration. Alan took his own life not long afterwards, eating an apple he had laced with cyanide. An intellectual genius who had armoured the free world against violent Nazi oppression was oppressed by a bigoted society until he took his own life. Thankfully today we have moved on a bit in the way that gay, lesbian, bi or transgender folks are viewed and treated but there are still so many ignorant bastards who still rant their ignorant bigotry as if LGBT people were of a different species and this is the cost of that kind of uncomprehending, ignorant hatred, one of our best and brightest lost and although he used his brain rather than a bayonet or a Spitfire, someone I would consider a war hero who fought the good fight as hard as anyone.

It is good in this month that marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two that Gordon Brown has formally apologised for the way Turing was treated, although a full pardon and offering proper government support for the museum at Bletchley Park would be better – the place where many men and women laboured in secret, without honours or publicity, to help win the war deserves to be better known. Its not as eye-catching as a Spitfire or the Normandy Landings, but the backroom boffins of Station X paved the road to victory as surely as the soldiers, airmen and sailors, as well as pioneering a whole new field of codebreaking, intelligence and birthing the modern computer, all kept secret for decades, so sensitive was this information (much of it was used during the subsequent Cold War for British Intelligence, it was that good) and both Turing and his colleagues should all be far more honoured than they have been. We have many public monuments to those who sacrificed all in defending us, and its right we should, but we should also honour the remarkable intellects who did no less a work in defending everything we believe in.

Overlord

The 6th of June; on this day in 1944 thousands of ordinary men did something extraordinary and stormed the enemy beaches in a landing now as legendary as the thousand ships of the Greeks beaching at Troy; the bad guys were finally going to be pushed back inch by bloody inch. Before they made that monumental charge how many others had been there secretly before them? How many agents, resistance fighters and Commandos died silently in the dark scouting those beaches to get the information needed to make D-Day work? I wonder where my old childhood hero wee George was that day with his Commando mates and again I wish I had known him as an adult and had the chance to record some of his memories. Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah; a huge endeavour and an enormous gamble, even with the massive naval and air superiority the Allies had built up, but it worked. I remember seeing a photograph years ago in a history book – I think it was some airborne troops preparing to get into the wooden Horsa gliders; someone had chalked on the side “the Channel stopped you, but not us.” I do wonder, as time passes, in the distant future will people think that this enormous armada and legions of brave souls are just a poetic exaggeration like the Iliad? What a price was paid for our freedoms.

Nuremberg

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg trials, where the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany were brought before a court which gave the world a new term: crimes against humanity. Just another historical anniversary? Far from it; all of our collective history is relevant – events from 60 years ago influence and shape our present just as events 600 years ago. History is far from a purely academic interest, it is the mould of our current world and a lack of awareness of our history denies us the means to understand and thus alter that mould to a new and better design.

The Nuremberg trials set the basis for later international law and set leaders on notice that they could be held to account for their actions in a world court – as old Slobby is at the moment (‘ethnic cleansing’ – a hideous case of history repeating itself if ever there was). Unfortunately it is unlikely we will see all of those who use their power and position unwisely – will we see Mugabe in the Hague? Blair? Bush? The leaders of the insurgency in Iraq who murdered dozens of Muslims at prayer on Friday? As with the supposedly impartial law of our own land those with influence and connections can and often do manage to circumvent the legal consequences to their actions. Nonetheless, the principal is a good one and we ignore it and the lessons of history at our peril.

On which subject I was watching the documentary series The West (from the producers of the excellent Civil War series, which drew largely on the work of the wonderful Shelby Foote) and once again was struck with how patterns repeat in history, usually to our shame. This episode dealt with Custer’s arrogant downfall at the Little Bighorn, the forcible taking of the sacred Black Hills by the US government after promises not to and the flight of the Lakota and the Nez Perce. Legendary names abound in this episode – Sherman, Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull – but the one thing which stared me in the face from over a century ago was the blind arrogance and greed of a larger power which would make many indications of friendship and peace then break their word and commit any and all forms of brutal act on warriors and civilians alike when they saw land and resources they coveted. Be it minerals in the Black Hills or the black gold of oil in the deserts of Iraq, it seems we are doomed to repeat some patterns as long as those with weak morals and no grasp of history are allowed to rule.

All the more important then, I think, that the rest of us learn and debate these events, historical and contemporary. Perhaps it will only be some of us talking online, but as long as some think about it and discuss it we serve notice that we refuse to be comlicit in these events and that we are watching what they do. And who knows, perhaps one day the people who commit such atrocities, dressing them up in lies and broken promises, will have to answer to us. Last week we commemerated the fallen of previous wars and the phrase ‘lest we forget’ was repeated, almost as a litany; this is a good phrase and one we should and must apply not only to those who fell to protect us but to those who would abuse that sacrifice to further their own selfish ends, dressing it in a rhetoric of lies.

“Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle.

Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.”

In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder coming up over the land from the water), better known to us as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, talking of the plight of his people, but it can all to easily be applied to current events. There is a commendable and concise overview of the chief by Jennifer Beck on this site.

Liberation

No, not the dodgy use of the word in Iraq but the Real Deal – Paris celebrates the 60th anniversary of the liberation. Certainly a great event to celebrate, not least because of the bravery in liberating the City of Light but also because the German commander refused to follow Hitler’s demand to fight a useless battle so this ancient city escaped much of the destruction that other European city’s suffered. However, along with many other British people – not to mention Americans, Canadians and an awful lot of others – I am more than a little disgusted at the way the official version of events has airbrushed the Allies out of the history so it now reads that ‘France liberated France’.

This is not new – it is a form of revisionism that began right after the liberation when De Gaulle, showing his normal gratitude to the people who had sheltered him for years and equipped the Free French forces he commanded, declared to the Parisians that the French had liberated themselves. Presumably this was because of the desperate desire to overcome the shame of their rapid defeat four years previously and the even more shameful collaboration by many, including many in the government, with the occupying Nazi forces (although many brave Maquis risked capture, torture and death to fight on – supplied of course by the Allies and organised by British Intelligence). Well, it makes a change from Hollywood airbrushing everyone but the American GIs from the war. Did I imagine it, or did we actually fight that war here? I’m sure someone once told me the British had a pretty important role in the fight against fascism (nothing big, we just stood off the entire might of Nazi Germany by ourselves for whole year without breaking, but hey, why mention it?). Perhaps I imagined it.

Rather curious behaviour from one of the EU nation’s who is often the loudest in calling for more integration in European brotherhood

Golfing memoirs

Scotland’s First Minister, Jack ‘Furtive’ McConnell has now announced a U-turn over his incredibly foolish decision not to accept an invite as leader of the Scottish government to the D-Day celebrations. Why would any statesman turn down such an invite? Well, he had already accepted an earlier invite to the anniversary of the Saint Andrew’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Yep, he considered a bunch of upper class twats talking about golf and wearing clothes like 1970s New York pimps to be more important then honouring the veterans of D-Day. Despite the fact that Scotland, traditionally the backbone of the British Army, suffered disproportianetly in terms of casualties he didn’t anticipate the storm of protest he caused amongst veterans and ordinary Scots. How amazingly stupid can this man be?

Picture this: a darkened room in a stately home in Southern England. It is 1944, the early hours of June 4th. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, the man tasked with the unenviable decision of if and how to launch the assault to free Europe is talking to Field Marshal Montgomery. We have a two day window of weather when the tides are right. Do we dare to go, boys? Monty considers this. Pauses in his familiar thoughtful manner, looks at his diary and answers, hmmm, the 6th isn’t good for me, I have a game of golf scheduled…

Greatest Generation the Next Generation

After pissing off many veterans of World War II last week by comparing his illegal foreign adventures to the fight against the Nazis Bush showed his profound understanding of history and the feelings of those vets by re-iterating the same point again. There is no lower step this mass-mudering bastard will not sink down to attempt to justify his insane actions.

Yeah, George, it’s just like WWII. We’ve got a country we invaded which has been bombed into fragments, with no infrastructure left and massive casualties from the bombing of civilian targets while the survivors try to eke out a miserable existence between the ruins while wondering what the future will bring to their ravaged land.

Coming in the week of the D-Day anniversary when we will be remembering the titanic struggles made by thousands of ordinary people to protect us from the most insidious darkness the man is once more utterly sickening.