“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina. You came to tell me that our son is dead.”
This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Rutu Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property. I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel. It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers. Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII. This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances. Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now).
Once in Poland, Regina tries to steal away to meet Roman, her forgotten lover, while Mica decides to find the property herself. During her travels she meets Tomasz, a Ukranian artist/tour guide who conducts her through the city and becomes attracted to her—or perhaps her grandmother’s history. Mica soon learns that Tomasz is sketching a comic of every story and character from Mica’s life, details she finds unbearably private. Rejecting him, she goes off on her own, mistakenly believing that the “property” is actually the current site of the Warsaw Hilton, which will make her family rich. Her search is complicated by the presence of Avram, her aunt’s fiance, who fears that Mica will get her hands on the property first. By dogging her steps throughout every frame of the comic, he learns of the true property and the man who owns it, and bribes him not to speak to Mica or her grandmother. Roman, meanwhile, is slowly piecing things together himself, and realizes that Regina bore him a son in Palestine, a boy he never met, who recently died of cancer. This, and not the property, is what finally prompted her to come to Poland and confront her past.
The novel ends with the Polish festival of Zaduski, the so-called day of the dead, where the entire city flocks to cemeteries to light candles and pay respects to the departed. Amidst the light and shadow of the festival (beautifully rendered by Modan’s artwork), Regina and Roman reconcile and share memories, Mica learns to trust Tomasz’s motives, and even Avram learns the truth about the property: that Regina’s parents sold it to Roman before the war to save it from Nazi possession. In the final pages, Mica learns that Roman is her grandfather, and her grandmother’s past wasn’t quite as buried as either of them thought. In short, the book lights its own candle for the past, showing the healing process which often takes decades and is sometimes attempted too late.
Of course, any summary of the story is flawed without appreciation of Modan’s artwork, which is the true voice of the narrative. The colors are light yet crisp, reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century Russian artist Bilibin, who sumptuously illustrated so many Russian fairytales. This gives the characters an almost cartoon-like characterization, which is belied by how realistically they move, express themselves, and interact with each other. According to the back of the book, each character had an “actor,” suggesting that she closely modeled the poses and expressions on real life. This shows in the book, which for all its stylization, gives us a “fly on the wall” approach—one of utter intimacy, almost like a documentary. Also, unlike some graphic novels, for which the setting is a mere hazy outline, place really matters: Warsaw emerges clearly in these pages, giving us a sense of its sights, sounds, and even smells. The cemetery scene, as discussed earlier, is most vividly evoked, as the characters piece together the past surrounded by a halo of red, orange, and blue lights.
The Property is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in some time, and deserves mention with other family narratives such as Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets. I look forward to teach this novel to my students this December!