Reinhard Kleist’s latest graphic novel follows in the footsteps of his Johnny Cash, I See a Darkness and Castro in that it tells the apparently true story of a man called Hertzko Haft, a Polish man who was swept up by the Nazis and imprisoned in a number of different concentration camps where he was forced to literally fight for his life as part of a series of boxing matches held by the Nazi high-ups. As with the Cash bio, Haft is a dark, ambiguous personality who we first meet refracted through the vision of his son – his son later went on to write the book that Kleist has based his story upon.
In the beginning, Haft is just a bad father, angry, unhappy, given to shouting at his son. When we return to Haft’s youth, we see how he and his brother’s managed to earn a crust when the family were poor and also how an act of heroism effectively all but dooms him (and if we follow the book to its conclusion, robs him of the great love of his life). A friendship with a pragmatic Nazi saves him, as much as anyone can be said to be saved who endured the horrors of the concentration camps, and arguably gives him the trade, and trains him to be disciplined enough to make a living for a short time after the war when he has fled to the States. A third act in the book sees Haft go up against Rocky Marciano and suffer the fate of anyone who gets mired in graft.
If you’re familiar with Kleist’s style, you’ll know what to expect in the way of hard, almost impressionist black and white art (Kleist is closer in style to a writer like Joe Sacco than he is to, say, someone like Bastien Vives, who changes his style according to the demands of the story). In lots of ways, Kleist’s art is a kind of conduit for the story. It doesn’t get in the way (Kleist is not an artist who art takes you out of the story – once you are in the flow, you are in the flow). Now, you might say that you want to be taken out of the story when you read a graphic novel (or you might be a person for whom the whole ‘disappearing into the experience’ is enough – I favour the latter myself).
What is most arresting about the book, though, is the story – and the surprise inherent in any wartime story that has not been told before is compounded by the number of other stories Kleist collects at the book’s conclusion (there are about a dozen other people who famously experienced similar events to Haft – one of them, Salamo Arouch, from Greece, had a film, Triumph of the Spirit, made about him in 1989; another, Jacko Razon, tried to sue the makers of Triumph of the Spirit for stealing his story).
It may be a graphic novel that you only read once but it is certainly good enough to warrant further investigation.
Any Cop?: Kleist is pursuing a distinctive and original furrow and The Boxer is at least as interesting as I See a Darkness and Castro.