Looking Away

The steady rise of the far right since the financial crisis of 2008 has been one of the most frequent causes of my insomnia. I might not sleep any better, but I want to at least try and understand its causes, especially in the wake of the racially motivated football violence at the Euros and the unleashing of racist attacks on the streets of the post-referendum UK. What makes people start believing that some have more value than others based on their race, language or skin colour? All across the continent, extremist parties are attracting people in greater and greater numbers to support policies based on prejudice. Did we learn nothing from the atrocities of twentieth century Europe?

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Barbara Yelin’s thoughtful graphic novel Irmina explores this issue in relation to how ordinary people condoned and enabled the Nazis’ evil regime to function. The novel is set in London, Berlin and Barbados, so I’m including it as my Barbados visit on my #AW80Books travels as I’ve already made a literary trip to Germany. (If you want to see where Lucy and I have already been on our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge travels you can find that here.)

The story begins in the mid 1930s, and Irmina, a young German woman moves to London to find work. Disdainful by the ignorant rudeness of some fellow  guests at a cocktail party, she falls into the path of Howard Green, a black student at Oxford. They bond over their shared ambition and the shared experience of difference that they are made to feel by those around them, albeit in differing degrees. Their relationship ends when Irmina has to return to Germany due to the political situation, and despite her frustrated attempts to return to England, they eventually lose contact.

Time passes and Irmina marries Gregor, an architect. Having lived through a time of economic hardship and political instability, it is deeply poignant when he talks with such optimistic innocence about the future and German restoration, as history is witness to the heavy cost that the restoration entailed. Gregor gradually becomes more involved in the machinations of the Third Reich, and meanwhile, Irmina begins to notice evidence of the darker aspects of the plan as it is put into action. Not knowing what she can do to change things, she turns a blind eye, and it is this looking away which ultimately makes her, and so many like her, complicit. She chooses the safety, comfort and happiness of her family over her ideals.

Years later, she is reunited with Howard, visiting him and his family in Barbados, where he is now the Governor General. Seeing him again reminds her who she once was and what she once believed in, and it is with heavy regret that she looks back at the choices she made during the intervening years .

I was stunned by the power of this simple act of looking away, especially when done collectively. Irmina is a powerfully written and beautifully illustrated graphic novel, which deals with complex issues with clarity and subtle nuance, while not over-simplifying. The illustrations are wonderful. The drawings are mainly monochrome and so dynamic. Yelin employs just the occasional splash of colour for dramatic impact. It’s a really extraordinary and fine piece of work.

Here are some pics –

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Irmina has not only made me think about how ignoring injustice contributes to the perpetuation of injustice, but it has also made me brood about what I turn a blind eye to in my daily life. When I consider the myriad of exploitative practices that contribute to contemporary life in all its consumerist glory, I wonder what future generations will make of us for choosing to look away.

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