What is History?
It is not a Germanic word in German, it would be Geschichte. Nor does it derive from the oft-suspected conjunction of his and story. No, the English word history comes from Latin and Greek, from the word istor meaning “learned.” And, I suppose, that’s a fair answer: History is whatever we, as a culture, have learned. But, that is not all we may mean when speaking of history, when declaring something history, or when reflecting upon history. I posit, however, that Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Stones, Book One is history in every sense of the word.
First, history is not strictly a noun. Nouns imply solely a person, place, or thing. History is the comfortable illusory title we give to the action of reflection and the process of retrospect. In this way, City of Stones is like history. It can be given a person, place, and a thing: Jason Lutes, author of Jar of Fool and The Fall; Berlin, just after the first World War, on a shaky road to recovery that also becomes the path to greater bloodshed; and the first eight issues of his masterful composition, collected by Drawn and Quarterly in one beautiful overture. Because, like history, a book is nothing until it is engaged. It is a stagnant, empty thing until it is read and explored.
Things are often said to make history, even as they are part of it. Certainly, a graphic novel like Art Spiegelman’s MAUS fits that description. Akin to City of Stones, it paints a picture of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Whereas Spiegelman opts to draw in metaphor using cats and mice to depict Nazis and Jews Lutes lets his characters blend. One cannot predict the destinies of Kurt the journalist, artist Marthe the artist, or Schwartz the newsboy. They are not ever marked of from the rest of the landscape of characters at least, not by Lutes, though perhaps by us. Lutes’ story is always growing, opening wider and wider instead of closing, as a novel might, to a pressurized climax. Every page of the book makes history unfold.
The book metaphor is especially appropriate given the popular use of saying something is “a page out of history.” Lutes’ style certain hearkens back to another time in comic book art. It is black and white, the paneling is distinct, and the style is simple, almost comic strip-like. And it is the perfect choice. It is not meant to obscure with over-florishing aestheticism. It’s meant to capture the humanity, even the universality, of the long-past time. City of Stones jump-cuts from life to life, sampling the circumstances and psychologies of each. We only get a taste, just a page from each of their life stories. But, it’s just long enough for the reader to acquire an overall flavor for the bygone era. The gestalt, to use the German term.
Things, also, become history; that is, they are eradicated. Sadly, the German of Lutes’ art no longer exists. In City of Stones, several ends are clearly in sight even as it manages, almost paradoxically, to grow. First, hostilities continue to amplify against the Jewish Berlin population, foreshadowing MAUS’ recount of their Holocaust. Second, families begin to divide, torn apart by Communist and Socialist ideology. And, third, as any student of history knows, the book races towards May Day 1929, a turning point in German history that will eventually lead to the disruption of global peace.
“Students of history” How interesting that History is, among all its other definitions and connotations, also a discipline. The most basic and general assumption behind its discourse is that there is something worthwhile, even necessary, to studying and recording History. As the Jewish proverb says, “Those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it.” Perhaps that is the service provided by City of Stones.
Of course City of Stones is a work of fiction, with characters from Lutes’ own mind. All history is fiction to some degree a selection of agreed upon “facts” linked together by hypothesis and supposition. One cannot criticize a work for being simultaneously fictional and historical; it is practically a necessity. What can be scrutinized, though, is what is done with those facts, how they are presented, and why. It seems as though Lutes seeks to restore individuality to the citizenry of Germany, to show them as humans trapped in a bizarre time rather than just recurrent global villains. He wants to display the truth about Germany, regardless of fact.
But, I admit, that is just speculation. Still, I cannot escape the feeling that City of Stones is history that it’s building it, recreating it, sampling it, and studying it. Each of its chapters is a building block a poetic stone, if you will in the construction of a reenvisioned Berlin. To what magnificent, literary and artistic structure City of Stones might ultimately be building is for history to decide.