“One day, I’ll tell you everything.”
Hertzko (later anglicised to ‘Harry’) Haft tells his son these words in the bright Florida sunshine of Miami in 1963. But it would be decades before his son actually found out why his father insisted he accompany him on this Florida road trip and what it was he wanted to tell him but simply couldn’t. That promise to tell his son everything circles The Boxer, the latest work by Reinhard Kleist, one of the brightest stars on the German comics scene. Kleist first came to our attention with his remarkable graphic biography of Johnny Cash, which was the first European comics work SelfMadeHero translated and republished in English (thankfully the first of a number of excellent foreign language works they have brought to English language readers). If, like me, you really dislike boxing, don’t be put off by the title and the pugilistic pose on the cover – yes, there is boxing in here, but in truth that sport isn’t really what the book is about, despite the title. This is a story about survival against the odds, from wartime, Nazi-occupied Poland to the nightmare of the death camps to reaching America after the war and finding that yes, you can make it there, but it too is full of tricksters and scammers and people out to make a buck out of you.
Part of what makes The Boxer so fascinating is that Kleist, bravely in my opinion, has chosen a pretty unsympathetic subject for his later graphical biography. Harry is really not a very likeable character, even as a young lad in Poland, he’s aggressive, loud, quick to anger, quick to resort to force. Sure, life is tough in their village, especially for Jews (even before the Nazi occupation, as Maus documented years ago, there was a lot of anti-Semitism there already), but although it is tough going Harry seems to take it worse than his siblings, the chip on his shoulder is large, right from the start, and in truth he never really shakes it, even when he settles in America years later, beating all the odds that saw so many millions die horribly, reduced to ash and leftover personal effects.
But this nature is also part of what drives Harry, that makes him survive – of course there is luck in this too, why one man is picked and not others for one detail or another in the camps, but he works hard, and he hardens himself still further to endure what will come because it is the only way he can even hope to make it out the other end of this hell. And for a while he is in hell, a hell even Satan would have shaken his head in despair over, a hell made by men who had become worse than any demons. Shave-headed, in the striped, thin prisoner uniform, he and others chosen for work rather than immeadite extermination are marched to the building housing the ovens to clear them out. It’s one of the most horrific scenes in the book, executed in very heavy sweeps of black ink as the horrified prisoners are shown the ovens, and what it is burning there, exiting the chimney as nothing more than black soot now – human beings. Even stoic Harry breaks at this point:
“We were lead to the building with the chimney that darkened the sky… I regretted being alive…”
But he does make it through – an SS guard takes a shine to him, and uses Harry’s natural talents to his own ends. Before being caught he and his brothers regularly smuggled black market goods and in exchange for better treatment and food this SS officer uses his services and makes himself a good bit of money on the side. And then comes the boxing match. Seen as a fighter Harry is supposed to fight a guard, a spectacle to entertain the SS men at the concentration camps. Except it isn’t a guard, it is an other prisoner, half-starved – a mirror of him if he hadn’t entered into this deal. And if he doesn’t fight the poor man he knows both can expect a pistol shot to the head, so he fights, and he hates himself for it, but he fights, he wins, he lives, he has to do it again and again… What will we do to survive, what price will we pay? This is no easy choice, no coward’s way out, this is another horror he has to endure.
After the war finding little sign of his family or the girl he was hoping to marry before the war he manages to flee to America by himself, to start a new life, and his boxing seems, as it has to generations of working class lads, to be a way out of the bottom of society, to make something of himself, stand out, be a man, earn both money and respect. But even here there are goons with guns and muscle and Harry, struggling to make a rep for himself and get those big fights that can make his career, finds it is all run by gangsters are cruel and lethal as those SS guards cheering the boxing in the camps. You take a dive when they say or your body will be found floating in the Hudson. Make a stand, make that name for yourself. But maybe also end up dead very quickly too… After enduring and surviving so much Harry has to ask himself what’s more important, making that career or making sure he lives…
It’s a hard read – not just because of the subject matter like the death camps, which is horrific enough, but, as I said, with Harry not being terribly sympathetic as a character. But with what he goes through you still root for him. You wish he would open up a bit more, lose those rough edges which are surely holding him back from enjoying life more once he is free, but then again those are the parts of him which helped him survive… It’s also about a father’s inability to talk emotionally with his son – men historically not the best at that emotional truth thing, even with their own flesh and blood, and of course in that era it was even more unusual for a man to open up like that, even to his oldest son, not just because what he has to say is awful but because it simply wasn’t what men did. And the mystery of that Miami trip with his son? That you have to read for yourself, but suffice to say it offers up a serious emotional punch. Yes, it’s a hard read, but a very powerful and deeply moving one too, a remarkable work from one of the finest young talents coming out of the European comics scene right now.
I’ll be talking with Reinhard Kleist and Nick Hayes on Sunday 24th of August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, hope you can come along!