Most of us are conditioned to think that our insignificant, small lives don’t matter, that our prosaic existences don’t make much difference to the larger world in which we live.
Of course, we’re both right and wrong in thinking that. We’re right in thinking that, because, yeah, most people don’t pay a bit of attention to the people they see every day. We’re wrong in thinking that, though, because even the most ordinary people can have the most interesting backgrounds and experiences.
Barbara Yelin’s Irmina backs up both of my assertions. A new book published by the wonderful British graphic novel publisher SelfMadeHero, this thick volume is the biography of an ordinary German woman whose life is extraordinary first in its utter ordinariness and later due to a breathtaking turn of events that turn due to their ordinariness.
Lightly fictionalized from the story of Yelin’s late grandmother, this delightfully illustrated book portrays the history of both ordinary people and extraordinary events in a style that shows the effect of history on the lives of the working class.
Irmina begins with the arrival of a German exchange student to London, 1934. Despite the Depression, London was a bustling city full of life and energy. Bored and lonely at a high-class party, Irmina strikes up a conversation with a black man of around her age. She naturally assumes he’s a servant, in his fancy suit and hangout out near the bar, but it turns out the young man, who we soon learn is named Howard, is a genius studying at Oxford.
Irmina is a bit smitten with the young man, and the first third of the book shows the travails of their relationship: the flirtations and kindness, the minor spats and the arguments with family that all couples experience. Irmina bounces around London, at one point rooming with a woman who seems modeled on the early British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, while the talk of rising fear of the Germans seems to dominate all conversations.
Irmina is a melancholy young woman, a dreamer looking for something she cannot define but ever questing for more time with her beloved Howard. Until, that is, she is forced for financial reasons to return to Germany. The scene on the dock where Irmina and Howard gaze longingly at each other while other passengers mutter phrases like “Germany, that’s where the future lies!” that echo ironically in Irmina’s ears.
If this book had ended there, it would have been a delightful, if slim, novelette of love found and lost. Hwoever, this lovely book is divided into three sections. The second chapter, titled “Berlin”, gives the book much of its power.
Returning to Germany, the immature Irmina spends most of her time deep in her own head. Though she quickly gets a job working for the German Ministry of War circa 1937, she spends a lot of time daydreaming of a chance to return to London to work in the German Embassy there. She is a young woman in love, and that love gives the Irmina her intensity and anger. Though in her society, she barely seems part of it. In her fecklessness and obliviousness readers can begin to see Irmina as a kind of symbol of the lives of many Germans during the rise of fascism. Occasionally interested, often annoyed, and always preoccupied with their daily lives, most ordinary Germans simply floated along with the world outside their windows.
An afterword to this book reminds readers that such conclusions were controversial but it’s easy to read between the panels here and see that the rise of the Nazis seems to happen slowly, step by step, in a way that feels as eerie as it probably did to most Germans of the time.
That naiveté lasts only as long as it takes for Irmina to become close to an aspiring German architect named Gregor Meinrich. He believes in the ideals of the Nazi effort, to an evangelistic fervor, and their romance (desultory compared to Irmina’s experiences with Howard) sets her life on its next tragic years.
Through the marriage, readers watch the euphoria of German triumphalism show its dark side as evil events happen and seem to encompass Irmina in their inescapable grasp. In the early days of their marriage, Irmina dreams of trips to Italy, but soon she witnesses much, much worse: kirstalnacht, the auctioning of Jewish household items, even the rounding up of Jews for Concentration Camps.
Yelin doesn’t spare the readers the effects of these terrible events but neither does she dwell on them over-much. The story she’s telling her is about one ordinary German woman, and she keeps the focus deliberately on that woman. The events are a contributing factor in her life but Irmina remains, always, herself more than merely a victim of events.
As times get worse in Berlin as the war drags on, we watch in almost overwhelming detail as Irmina’s world falls apart around her. It’s a lovely touch how sometimes the smaller moments of pain have the most impact on the story: a broken glass of jam has a devastating emotional effect on a woman who has reached the ends of her abilities to simply survive in this horrific environment.
As the middle section ends, we see all innocence and happiness shattered like that jar of jam. A once idealistic woman has become crushed by the terrible world in which she lives. Like so many of her fellow citizens, Irmina was crushed inside decisions made by people out of her control, of battles that be no easier prevented than a river.
If the book had ended at the end of chapter two, it would have read like the story of innocence tragically lost, of potential never realized and happiness never achieved. Irmina would have been the everyday tragedy of a small woman crushed by the world in which she lived.
But the book doesn’t end in chapter two. There’s a third act to Irmina, as there is a third act to Irmina’s life, and it’s here that this book reaches its transcendent qualities. I don’t want to ruin anything about this part of Yelin’s wonderful graphic novel, but suffice it to say that this final third delivers some surprising twists that brought a few tears to my eyes.
Thoughout, Yelin’s artwork has a sketchy but clear linework that adds emotional heft and power to the story that she tells. There are moments in this book, especially in naked faces but also in turned backs and in street scenes of a Berlin festooned with Nazi flags, that are gorgeously memorable. In its unspecific specificity, the artwork in this book both tells Irmina’s specific story and welcomes us to walk in Irmina’s shoes. It’s a wonderful trick that is delivered beautifully.
Irmina is the very human story of one of the most dehumanizing events in human history. It reminds readers that no matter how small we are as people, we do matter to others and that we can affect the world in ways that we might never expect. Like nearly everything published by SelfMadeHero, this book is original, thoughtful and well worth reading. I was fascinated by the humble Irmina and the complicated world in which she lived.