WE ARE ON OUR OWN in the National Post

“A child in Budapest: Miriam Katin has published her first graphic novel at the age of 63, and the memoir of her life in Second World War Hungary was worth the wait” / National Post / Jeet Heer / May 31, 2006

Little kids have a dog's eye view of the world. From the standpoint of a two-year-old or a beagle, adults might as well be walking skyscrapers, their heads off in the clouds and their lives caught up in unfathomable concerns. Living closer to the ground, kids and dogs are quick to sniff each other out, forming friendships based on the fact that they both have to contend with the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of the big people.

Part of the considerable achievement of Miriam Katin's comic-book memoir We are on Our Own is that it evokes, with unsentimental exactness, a child's view of the world so that we can understand why the book's heroine first gets a glimmer of the horrors of war by the loss of her dog.

The book is based on the experience of Katin and her mother in Hungary during the last two years of the Second World War. A few of the names in the book have been changed to protect the sensibilities of those who experienced the events, but the fundamental narrative is based on the memories of the cartoonist, those of her mother and surviving family documents.

The story is simple enough: Living in Budapest in 1944, a young mother and her two-year-old daughter have to flee into the country-side when the collaborationist Hungarian regime starts to round up the Jews. Living under a false identity, mother and daughter fend for themselves amid the patchwork war fought out by the German occupiers and the ambiguous liberation forces of the Red Army.

What gives We are on Our Own its special edge, its genuine ability to bite and claw into the reader's soul, is the way Katin uses the conventions of cartooning to tell her tale so that it has many layers of meaning. In a prose narrative, it is usually possible to unfold one narrative thread at a time, each word following another like a marching soldier. In a picture, several things can happen simultaneously: Da Vinci's Last Supper, for example, features several subplots among the disciples to complement the central figure of Jesus.

In We are on Our Own, each picture usually has several events happening at once. One main narrative line is the story of Eve, the cosmopolitan mother who has to use her feminine wiles to pass as a peasant while being subject to the sexual advances of horny soldiers. In the same set of pictures, usually lower in the frame, daughter Lisa is experiencing the war from her own pint-sized perspective: befriending dogs and other animals while taking candy from the uniformed men who are so nice to her mom. Finally, sequences set in the post-war period show Lisa thinking about these wartime experiences. This provides yet another re-framing of the story: Remembering the war as an adult, Lisa sees the seeds of her own hard-bitten philosophy, her steely rejection of the false consolation of faith.

At age 63, Katin is a newcomer to the field of the graphic novel, but she brings with her a wealth of experience as a cartoonist and illustrator. Her family left Hungary after the 1956 uprising, immigrating first to Israel then the United States. Katin has worked as an animator in both countries, with a resume that lists MTV and Disney as former employers. Her style, like her narrative, is a careful mixture of approaches: At times it has the elegance of an old-fashioned storybook, but then it jars with the starkness of a war photo. This stylistic variety serves the larger artistic plan of the book, showing the clash between childhood innocence and the brutality of the adult world.

- Miriam Katin will be speaking at the International Readings series in Toronto tonight. readings.org, 416-973-4000
© National Post 2006

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