One of this year’s best graphic novels is this second volume adapting the memoirs of René Tardi, who kept copious notes of his capture and internment by German soldiers during the Second World War. The elder Tardi’s notes, sketches, and verbal recollections provide a vivid and gripping experience for the 21st-century reader.
An element of resigned fatalism shrouds both volumes of this work—it’s serie noire-worthy in its bleakness and frankness. Often, while reading both books, I was reminded of the great French films of the period just after the war ended. Working without censorial restraint, filmmakers such as Jacques Becker, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Robert Bresson expressed a grim vision of an immoral world. Perhaps the wartime experience of French prisoners-of-war (and those who struggled to survive during the German occupation of France) hard-wired this outlook into the culture’s films and novels. Jacques Tardi (and his father) deliver a comics narrative that is black to its core—yet defiantly composed of a blunt optimism. The books’ beleaguered, abused, starved, and diseased POWs stoically endure privation. They may bitch about it when things get ridiculously bad, but their response to much of the worst of mankind is a hard-nosed shrug.
The second half of this Tardi family story centers on a meandering, miserable march of the POWs through brutal conditions—winter weather, little or no food—as the Nazis attempt to outdistance the encroaching Russian army. At the end of the book is a two-page map that details the gnarled, confused path the POWs were forced to endure. It carries great emotional weight, seen after the reader has walked this maze of blizzard and blight with filthy, broken men who weren’t sure they’d ever see home again.
As with the first book, Tardi includes a young version of himself, in constant conversation with father Renē, during the forced march. Young Jacques nit-picks his father’s recollections, bluntly comments on what he sees and asks questions about people, places and things that don’t make sense to him. Tardi has invented a clever way to involve himself in his father’s story—which he devoted many years to chronicling in these two books. He is often a gadfly to his father, and children can be to their parents. Young Jacques is an occasional nuisance, but his presence is important.
His inclusion leaves the reader feeling that Tardi understands the story of his father—by walking the tangled path through Poland, Germany and Belgium, he adds empathy to an otherwise heartlessly bleak narrative. His presence doesn’t dilute the story’s impact; it helps humanize it. Without this device, the books might be an overwhelm of mankind’s penchant for brutality.
It’s easy to take a cartoonist of Jacques Tardi’s level for granted. This book is a constant flow of complex architecture, detailed crowd scenes and rich evocations of textures, climates and sensations. In this master artist’s hands, the reader may experience a synesthesia and swear they are smelling the stale tobacco, bodily odor, damp and earth that is a character in this narrative. Supporting this effect is the book’s myriad of bluish-brownish greys. Its dead skies, muddy roads and gutted buildings have a vivid life in monochrome. When a bright red is introduced, on pp. 89-90, it is a genuine shock. As liberation becomes reality for these weary captives, other colors seep into the grey. The transition is masterful. Rachel Tardi’s color work is essential to the book’s impact. Like the presence of young Jacques, Rachel’s input gives a grim story humanity and dimension.
Jenna Allen’s translation is superb. The tone is conversational, human and expressive. Reading translated comics, like seeing subtitled films, can be a frustrating experience. Sometimes, one feels that things have been simplified, glossed over. Allen appears to have created a sympathetic, sincere translation of dialogue and narration.
The first book was an essentially static story of imprisonment. Part two is in constant confused movement, as human bodies and spirits are pushed beyond their limits of hunger, exhaustion and misery. Tardi’s eye never flinches, and he invites the reader to brace themselves and keep their gaze affixed to the haunting, despairing events of the book—and to appreciate small moments of humorous absurdity amidst the chaos and desolation. This second book can be read on its own, as its few callbacks to the first volume are coherently made. It’s refreshing to see such clear, concise storytelling.
A post-story essay, “Return from Hammerstein”, offers the artist’s insights to the events and places of the book, including a 2013 visit to some of the locations pinpointed in Renē’s notes. This text, augmented with photographs, replicas of Renē’s diaries and a glossary of German terms, gives satisfying closure to this idiosyncratic war story. Handsomely designed by Jacob Covey, and with the spirit of Kim Thompson, who championed Tardi’s work for an American audience, felt in its pages, My Return Home is a powerful and timeless story. Mankind may never be able to overcome its need to hurt and belittle itself. Renē Tardi’s story shows how this cruelty impacts our attempts at civilization. I think will be relevant a century from now.