Saturday, April 5, 2014

With Only Five Plums is Simple, Sad, and Satisfying

There's no shortage of narratives about the Holocaust out there, both fictional and non-, because it's a subject of such significance and complexity that there'll never be an end to the discussion. Nor should there be, because if we don't remember it we're doomed to repeat it, which some would argue we're doing anyway, but that's a question for another time and place (and person). With the abundance of material on the topic, one might question what a book like With Only Five Plums has to offer that other such pieces do not. Now, I can't necessarily speak to that, because I haven't read literally everything ever written about the Holocaust, but I can say with total confidence that With Only Five Plums gets its strength and its heart not from the details of its content, but from the gorgeously simple way in which it presents that content to its readers. Examining an enormous tragedy from a very personal perspective, and laying out the unthinkably horrifying realities of its narrative with a straightforward, almost matter-of-fact approach, the book is deceptively powerful. Page-by-page, it looks and reads like something basic, but the work as a whole feels like something spectacular.
     With Only Five Plums is based on a series of interviews that writer Terry Eisele conducted with Holocaust survivor Anna Nesporova, who is also the book's main character. It's split into three volumes, each of which represents a particular period of time: before Anna is taken by the Nazis, during her time in the camp, and then after she returns home. Each of them is a complete piece, but none of them pack as big a punch individually as they do as a group, which is, I suppose, the mark of a well-structured series. Book 1 is titled, "The Time Before" and it introduces Anna and the members of her family before the Nazis split them all up, never to see one another again. In discussing her family and hometown in those pre-Holocaust days, Anna's voice at first seems a little cold. It's not void of affection, but she speaks a little stiffly, presenting the facts of the case with very little commentary or color. This feels odd at first, but the deeper into the story we get, the more apparent it becomes that Anna's muted emotional tone is a defense mechanism. Were she to give into her sadness and pain, letting them out in her words, they would drown out the details of the story, and it is those details that both Anna and Eisele want to give to the world. In order to make it through her story at all, Anna must necessarily steel her heart against the agony of remembering it, or else there would be no energy left to tell it. It is a string of tragedies so immense that the only way anyone could ever discuss them at any length would be take the same approach Anna does, getting through the beats as directly and succinctly as possible, never giving herself time to dwell too long on anything. Even then, there are moments where she quite understandably breaks, asking Eisele for a brief pause before continuing or, at the end of each volume, requesting that they stop for the day. No matter how objective about it she tries to be, Anna cannot escape the despair and loss of her past; it catches up to her throughout the books many times.
     Even later, in discussing her experiences in the concentration camp and, after that, coming home to a town the Nazis had literally wiped off the planet, Anna never opens herself up entirely. There is always that reserved element to her narration, moving through each memory as efficiently as she can without embellishments or time for much mourning. Presumably, part of the reason for this is the language barrier. As a citizen of the Czech Republic, English is not Anna's first language, so some of the limits of her speech are no doubt a result of that. Additionally, Eisele clearly did an immense amount of historical research outside of talking with Anna, so some of the things which, in the book, are attributed to Anna the character, may in fact be details provided by Eisele the researcher, and are therefore presented more dryly or directly than they might be if someone was relating them from personal experience. These factors, combined with Anna holding back a little to keep herself intact, might make With Only Five Plums too stiff and detached as a whole, were it not for Eisele intelligently and deliberately mixing in moments of Anna letting her defenses down. As I mentioned, there are several times where she needs a break, short or long, and there are also moments where, right in the middle of trying to get from point A to point B, Anna does let her emotions take the reigns. She is overcome by regret, loss, and even nostalgia at many points in the book, despite her concentrated efforts not to let these feelings dominate her story. Understandably so, as her tale involves years of incessant struggle and tremendous losses in just about every part of her life.
     Without getting into it too completely—since this is a rich, thorough book and also I don't want to spoil everything—the arc of Anna's narrative is as follows: growing up in the small Czech town of Lidice, Anna was a young woman, newly married and pregnant, by the time the Nazis came for her and her family. They weren't Jewish, mind you, just Czech, a reminder that while the Nazis obviously had a special hate for the chosen people, they weren't all that particular at the end of the day. Anna's pregnancy spared her at first, which was actually far more curse than blessing, since nobody else in her family got to stay behind. Her parents, husband, and extended relatives were carted off, and Anna was left alone for a time. By the time she gave birth, though, she'd also been placed in custody, and her daughter was only a few months old when the Nazis took her away, too. Anna was then transported to the concentration camp of Ravensbrück, where she lived for three years in the unthinkable, subhuman conditions for which such places are now infamous. The most horrific thing she went through, however, came after she was freed from Ravensbrück and returned to Lidice, only to discover that the Nazis had leveled it and left nothing behind, so that what was once a town full of people had, in only three years, been transformed into an empty field. Just when she thought she was past all the evil and nothing more could be taken from her, she lost her home, the only connection to her previous life that she imagined was left.
     Eisele structures the story so that Book 1 and Book 2 essentially tell the full story of Anna's personal trials, beginning with the Nazis taking her family and ending with her discovery that Lidice had been destroyed. Book 1 and Book 3 work together to tell the complete story of Lidice as a town, from life before the war (Book 1) to a detailed description of the steps taken to murder everyone who lived there and destroy everything left standing (Book 3). It's a nice way to build things, beginning with a story both personal and communal, then focusing on the personal side, and then returning to the communal for the ending. It also helps each volume stand alone, since the first one is essentially the complete story of Anna before Ravensbrück changed her life and self forever, the second a full account of how the camp did so, and the third is not so much Anna's own story as that of Lidice after she was removed from it. There is a clear beginning and end to each of these, a natural rise and fall in every narrative that makes them all work as their own things. Yet in Anna exists an unbreakable throughline that ties them together as well.
     I've given a lot of credit to Eisele, and he deserves it, because he clearly put a great deal of work into writing this, taking care to make Anna a very real character, someone with whom it is easy to connect and empathize. And Eisele's devotion to studying the history surrounding Anna's life adds a lot of useful and enriching information, and makes With Only Five Plums an interesting, valuable historical text on top of everything else. However, had Eisele decided to go prose with this story, I doubt if it would be nearly as effective as it is in its current graphic novel form. Artist Jonathon Riddle's clean, realistic, black-and-white drawings add so much heart and humanity here, to Anna as a character and to the story as a while.
     Riddle is the perfect choice for this book, because his style is somewhat minimalist, often using generous amounts of white space on the page, but always with purpose. There aren't a lot of traditional, bordered panels, because Riddle prefers to separate his images with emptiness, so that they sort of float together on the page, laid out logically but not constrained or constructed in the usual rigid ways. This goes well with the story being told, as it mostly comes from Anna's distant, guarded, painful memories, and therefore flows differently than one might expect. The black-and-white coloring and Riddle's thick, confident linework match the starkness of the narrative, which is itself void of much warmth or color. When things are at their bleakest, Riddle goes more gray than black, and when life is hard on Anna, so are the lines that make up her world. Eisele's straightforward writing and Anna's sometimes clipped voice are given incredible depth by the simple choices Riddle makes on every page. He is the source of this book's most memorable parts: Anna's baby being forced from her arms, her arrival at the barren landscape that was once her hometown, the bodies of Lidice's men splayed out across the ground like litter after the Nazis murdered them en masse. These are evocative images, more so than any description of these events could ever be in the same space.
     The most important thing Riddle brings to the table is his depiction of modern-day Anna, older and softer but no weaker for it. The hardships behind her are evident in every line on her face, as is her resolve to relate her story despite how difficult it is for her to talk about. To actually see that struggle, to witness Anna push through it in the name of the truth, demands the reader's attention. She is a gripping figure, and it makes the terrors she went through that much harder to ignore. By infusing so much heartbreak and determination into Anna in the present, Riddle makes the story of her past even more compelling.
     Riddle's sometimes sparse artwork fits with Eisele's simple approach to the script, and makes With Only Five Plums feel lighter than it truly is. There is so much that happens in this book, to Anna directly and to the many other people in her world, yet the heaviness of it all doesn't weigh too greatly while reading. I don't want to imply that it's not an impactful work, because it is, with each new tragedy Anna lives through hitting harder than the last. But Eisele and Riddle are sure to show those tragedies to us in a way that, while underlining their seriousness, doesn't overdo it or play up the trauma in too ham-fisted a manner, either. They keep things grounded, quiet, and sad in the understated way all old wounds feel, not as intense as they were when they actually occurred, but still unavoidably and powerfully painful.

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