“Works in the same way as Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon” – Irmina by Barbara Yelin
It could just be me but when I read a graphic novel, undertaken by a single person, in which the art and the narrative are superlative, I go away feeling like they have done a better job than the best novelist, than the best film-maker, than almost any artist you could care to mention. Here, after all, is art: images rendered in a way that is impressive, which, when placed alongside other images that are equally impressive, forge a work that is at once epic in scope and impactful (to use a word we hate). A sturdy graphic novel by a single person feels impressive in a way that few other works of art do. When taken alongside the fact that there are still people who don’t take the form seriously, the status of being in an underdog niche makes the achievement still more impressive. All of which possibly goes some way towards demonstrating what we thought about Irmina, the first graphic novel by Barbara Yelin to be published in English (we think).
What we have here is a story inspired by a box of diaries and letters Yelin found amongst her grandmother’s things some years ago and – we sense – a whole lot of research about the Second World War. Irmina is a young German lady who comes to London in 1934 to study as part of a foreign exchange who befriends a young man called Howard from Barbados who is studying at Oxford. Initially we think this is a story about two people from very different backgrounds, a love story, possibly, set against a context of more restrictive social mores than exist today (there is a nice scene in a cinema where a bolshy English man refuses to sit next to a ‘darkie’ and is castigated by Irmina, to Howard’s dismay). In the background we see the storm clouds gathering over Europe, in the asides and whispers that follow Irmina around various social gatherings – talk Irmina herself is quick to dismiss.
And then the book takes a hard right turn. Short of cash and rendered homeless, Irmina is forced home and we next see her working a badly paid job in what becomes the Ministry for War in Berlin, attempting to earn herself a return visit to London. Gradually (Yellin is a star when it comes to pacing), her circumstances on the ground (a boss who gives her special albeit unwanted attention and marks her card when it comes to her leaving) and the worsening relationship between Germany and England serve to keep her in her place and she reacclimatises, marrying (into the SS of all things) and living a life as things get very hard indeed for certain residents of Germany (although, again, Yelin works hard to ensure we follow Yelin as she changes, even risking the reader losing sympathy with her at times when she wilfully ignores what is going on around her or too easily buys the Party line). In some respects, Irmina works in the same way as Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon, telling a story that is on the surface quite simple but that underneath has more bubbles than water in a boiling kettle.
As you’d expect, no-one comes out of the war unscathed and the second part of the book ends with Irmina fleeing Berlin in the company of her son – but that is not the whole story for Yelin picks up the thread left by Howard some 50 years later, in Barbados, where Howard has done very well for himself. The two would-be lovers are reunited with a whole ocean having flowed under the bridge, and the story quietens down some, leaving you, briefly, with the feeling that this was, after all, a love story, albeit a love story that acts as a bookend to a story of wartime German life that we don’t always get a chance to see and consider. It’s fairly dark, all things considered, and it is certainly possible to feel like Irmina gets the life she deserves, in the end. But if you come away feeling like this, we’d recommend you look again. What Yelin has done here, what Yelin’s great achievement is, in fact, is to shine a light on a people and a time that – seemingly, from the excellent afterword to the book written by Dr Alexander Korb – the people themselves could not do. And in doing so, she retains a measure of sympathy and understanding and we as readers should try to do the same.
Any Cop?: It’s a considerate work, certainly, and one that demands compassion and understanding. We’ll be keeping out eye out for what Yelin gets up to next.
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- March 31, 2016 / 9:00 am