Irmina is a visually arresting and provocative bio-comic by award-winning German comics artist Barbara Yelin, whose work has hitherto been largely unavailable in English. Irmina, which came out two years ago in Germany, won the 2015 Prix Artemisia among other awards.
The book is based on a true story Yelin stumbled across in her grandmother’s letters and diaries. It chronicles the life of its namesake through a life punctuated by war, heartbreak but above all the struggle for independence and self-determination.
The most compelling literary characters are often those rendered deeply human by their contradictions and imperfections, and Irmina falls firmly within this category. She’s disturbingly real and unpredictable, fixated on her goal of personal independence (pursuing a life as an independent working-woman in the ’30s was no mean feat) yet not impervious to succumbing to love and attraction; a woman frustrated by her poor class background as well as the German ethnicity which automatically situates her in a looming geopolitical struggle of which she wants no part. The two romances that mark her life are equally complex: one of her lovers is a black student from Britain’s Caribbean colonies struggling through a racist, second-class existence in England as a student on a colonial scholarship; the other is an ambitious German Nazi officer who doesn’t realize what a horrifying war machine he’s become a part of into until it’s too late.
The story unfolds unpredictably, as true life is wont to do, and ends on a wistful and poignant, if quite realistic, note. Worthwhile for the artwork alone, the story is a compelling one, and the character of Irmina, although often rude and self-centered (in other words, a complex and real protagonist), is nonetheless endearing for what those traits demonstrate about her: a young woman on a persistent quest for an independent life, constantly struggling to retain control of her own destiny, in a misogynistic and sexist world about to plunge into horrific war.
The broader meaning of Irmina’s story is more complex. In a thoughtful and provocative afterword, historian Alexander Korb interprets Irmina’s story as a contribution to the literature of how everyday Germans became complicit with Nazi fascism. He sees Irmina as a willing contributor to the Nazi state, and depicts her as the author of her own choices: working in the German War Ministry, marrying a senior Nazi officer and encouraging her friends not to speak out and cause trouble.
While this resonates with the questions posed by Yelin in her brief foreword — “what I really discovered in that box was a question — a disturbing question about how a woman could change so radically. Why she would turn into a person who did not ask questions, who looked the other way, one of the countless passive accomplices of her time?” — Korb’s take makes for an overly simplistic interpretation of Irmina’s story as it is presented. Irmina — a student in England when the book opens — never wanted to return to Germany, and spends much of the book trying to leave it. It’s true that she’s ambivalent about the rise of Nazism, but she’s ambivalent about politics in general.
Her main aspiration is to be an independent working woman, an aspiration she finds stymied both by her class context (a poor younger sibling whose family cannot afford to send her to university) as well as her struggles against the patriarchal world of the early 20th century. She is loosely antipathetic to Hitler, yet grows angry when her British acquaintances raise the topic of the tense pre-war political situation because she wants to be defined neither as a German nor as a Nazi; she wants to be defined as an independent woman.
The rise of Nazism is an irritation to her primarily because it impedes her ability to establish an independent life for herself in England; and yes, in this she displays a profound lack of empathy toward the plight of European Jews who faced much harsher persecution and struggles as fascism gripped Europe. But her ambivalence toward Nazism arises from a broader ambivalence toward masculine politics in general: she doesn’t care for the power politics of fascism versus its foes because her struggles are neither for or against fascism; they are to overcome poverty and patriarchy which manifest under both regimes. The plight of her racialized lover illustrates this as well: he suffers from the persecutions of British colonialism and is eventually forced out of that country, too: not at gunpoint like the Jews were forced out of Germany, but just as inexorably by the hand of state-sponsored, white British bigotry and discrimination.
This is not to equate the persecutions of British colonialism with those of German Nazism, but to problematize the simplistic narrative of Irmina as a German woman complicit with the regime under which she lived and worked. As the story progresses, she witnesses first-hand acts of violence against Jews, and does indeed tell her young son to look the other way and not speak out; but she’s also looking after his safety and welfare. Earlier in the book Irmina, before she’s saddled with a child, rarely shows any qualms about speaking out against Hitler and the Nazis (although she optimistically convinces herself they’re just a temporary evil); it’s only later when she has a son to look after that she turns silent and tells him to keep quiet and look away.
Similarly, she enters into her marriage with the Nazi officer under determinedly ambivalent conditions: she’s just had her hopes dashed for returning to England; she doesn’t know the whereabouts or feelings of her true lover, whom social convention requires her to keep hidden anyhow; she’s poor and has quit a job where she was sexually harassed by her boss. To interpret her actions as embracing Nazi power for personal gain is to utterly ignore the misogynistic world in which she lives and the complexity of the struggle she wages against it.
Korb’s analysis, while typical of masculine scholarship, falls flat when juxtaposed against the reality of a poor woman struggling to pursue a life for herself in a world careening toward war, where she is beset by sexism and harassment wherever she turns. The afterword acknowledges the question of women’s role under the Nazi regime, but largely from a political economy perspective; it doesn’t take into account the psychological double toll of daily struggles against sexism and misogyny coupled with increasingly daily struggles with political repression. For male actors, compromising with the Nazi regime was a very different experience from women who were already forced to compromise with a sexist, misogynistic and repressive society long before the arrival of Nazis on the political scene.
If there are lessons to be drawn here, on a political level her story resonates with questions one must ask about how white middle-class Americans in states like Arizona or Texas reconcile themselves with the regressive and oppressive politics of their ruing regimes. When laws are passed restricting women’s reproductive rights or permitting terrible persecutions against Latin American immigrants or Muslims; when poor blacks are murdered by the State and the perpetrators protected by ruling regimes; how do ‘everyday Americans’ (code for white, middle-class Americans) justify not marching and protesting or joining in acts of resistance against their ruling regimes?
They do so on the grounds that they don’t want to get involved in politics or that they have limited ‘free time’ in which to do so; they want to live their lives as independent people, with whatever level of privilege they’re able to tap into and use for their own well-being; they content themselves with voting and the conviction that it’s just a temporary phase; they convince themselves they have little ability to change things and will do what little things they can in their own personal sphere of influence; and whether or not they agree with what’s going on all around them, they want to define themselves as actors outside of that political context. They’re disgusted by the politics of Trump versus Clinton and prefer to simply ignore the whole mess.
Yet ignoring the political context surrounding you comes at a price: it’s one that Irmina learned as the war took its course, and one that many Americans will doubtless learn as history unfolds in their country, as well.
Irmina is a beautiful and thought-provoking book. It’s gorgeously illustrated: the pencil sketches convey a period style that’s surprisingly rich in depth and complexity. Yelin’s art evokes dense and dark urban landscapes; against this she contrasts her characters who virtually shine with visual simplicity. The juxtaposition is worth appreciating: the most complex parts of the story are the characters, yet artistically they are depicted with a simple and straightforwardly light-handed touch. The dark, dense cityscapes draw the reader and characters alike into their world. The book is a visual joy to behold, and the story is a compelling one that will stay with the reader well past its ending.