“It’s going to be the Polish ‘Persepolis,” Tomasz claims of the graphic novel about the Warsaw uprising. You can’t help but smile a little, recognizing this as perhaps not Tomasz on his work in progress, but Rutu Modan on The Property. The comparison feels natural, but on closer inspection becomes more and more blurred; Marjane Satrapi’s biographical Persepolis presents us with a monochrome story of an adolescent girl from 1970s Iran, very different to Rutu Modan’s 21st century Israeli protagonist Mica Segal, draped in Modan’s colourful style, reminiscient of a mixture of Georges Remi (or ‘Hergés’)’s The Adventures of Tin Tin mixed with the pop art style of Julian Opie on the Blue: the Best of cover. Bodies, clothes and surroundings are kept realistic, while faces are playful and sometimes exaggerated, especially noses. One strong similarity between the two texts is the unflinching and all-telling demonstration of a story of the Personal.
The story follows Mica Segal and her grandmother, Regina, leave Ben-Gurion airport in Israel (the date is kept ambiguous as “200X.)” The internal conflicts of the region are not mentioned in the story; I have not read it, but Modan’s other work, Exit Wounds seems to deal with this more directly. The only real hint is when Mr. Popowski instigates a Krav Maga block from Mica upon learning that she is from Israel. They are heading to Regina’s native Poland, a country she left before WWII for Israel, to reclaim ‘the property’; a building that Regina’s parents owned before the war. Avram Yogdavik, an overbearing ‘friend’ of Mica’s auntie Tzilla, tags along. Mica meets Tomasz, a young Polish man giving tours of Jewish Warsaw while hiding away from Yogdavik, while Regina reconnects with a secretive past in the city.
Right from the start we are given personal and emotive hooks; the inside covers display not an archetypal picture of Poland one might expect of the ‘Polish Persepolis,’ but an illustration of forests, houses, lakes and mountains in Sweden, complete with a little Swedish flag. Before reading the book this makes no sense, but comes to make sense as this luscious image of Sweden represents a deeply emotive point in Regina’s personal history. Even the epigraph has a personal nature, being from a family member of Modan’s.
In the face of texts dealing with post-war Polish-Jewish identity such as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS (the only other similarity being Regina and Vladek’s shared stinginess of food,) we can see how difficult it is to pen a story of the Personal, of love, loss, and family. While embarking to locate the property, Mica suddenly witnesses a re-enactment of the Nazi’s forcing Jews onto a truck, shocking Mica and Avram into disbelief, with Avram almost forgetting that WWII is over and attacking one of the re-enacting Nazi soldiers. The history of WWII, the holocaust and uprisings against the Nazis is far from forgotten in the area, as Mica encounters tours, memorials, tourists and those in the business time and time again. Even Mica, when dealing with a melancholic Regina, brings up history as a cause before the Personal; “Is it because of Warsaw?... Is it because of dad?”
The reader is shown both of Regina’s and Mica’s stories, in both written and pictoral form. It would be easy to make this redundant in the text, but Modan uses the scenario to bend language to exemplify the multitude of layers to the single story the reader gets. Three languages are used by the characters in the novel; Hebrew, Polish and English, each given their own font format. Mica can’t understand Polish, but speaks English and Hebrew; she speaks English with Tomasz, who also speaks Polish. Regina can talk Polish and Hebrew. Tomasz occasionally translates for Mica. When all characters are together and Polish is spoken, the reader is confronted with speech bubbles filled with squiggles, representing the incomprehensible Polish that Mica hears.
Modan’s focus on the personal identity, history and times of the two main characters in the face of a messy multitude of factors that could easily creep in and weigh down the story creates not a ‘Polish Persepolis,’ but a unique story of emotion and self-reflection, that, yes, happens to be set in Poland, but is simply about the tragedies, victories, joys and frustrations that attach themselves to relationships with those we love and care about.