Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home

There is no exact English equivalent for the German word heimat. Though typically translated as “home” or “homeland,” the original German possesses emotional nuances these words never fully replicate. In heimat, everything is in order; one exists in right orientation to self and others. Heimat is a place of belonging—whether physical, temporal, or cognitive—from which one derives meaning. Nineteenth-century German writers used heimat to speak of those good ‘ol agricultural days before the Industrial Revolution. Other German writers refer to the German language as their heimat. The German adjectives heimlich and unheimlich (respectively, familiar and unfamiliar) share the same root as heimat. A whole genre of quasi-pastoral German literature known as Heimatroman (English: Home novel) is devoted to this one-word idea. As with many wonders of German culture, the Nazi party appropriated heimat during World War II to further a nationalist agenda.

Heimat is central to Nora Krug’s Belonging. She sprinkles the word throughout, and when not visibly present, this uniquely German concept remains an undergirding topos. Near the book’s beginning, she devotes a whole page towards providing unfamiliar readers with a dictionary definition of the term. Krug professes the aim of her narrative is to uncover the truth of her father, uncle, and grandfather’s potential involvement with the Nazi party, and her ensuing investigation resembles the suspenseful winding of a noir detective narrative as she interviews relatives and historians, crosses the Atlantic, and scours archives for the truth of her ancestor’s participation, however active or passive, in Nazism. But this professed goal is only her story’s MacGuffin. Her actual aim is heimat, a sense of identity and home. Despite Belonging’s subtitle, Krug does not so much reckon with home and history as she searches for home through familial history.

She relates this search via a menagerie of visual devices: black and white photographs, scanned newspapers and government documents, sketches, watercolors, Germanic style cartoon art, and immense blocks of handwritten text. Belonging’s notebook aesthetic and mish-mash style combines with its heavy-hearted subject matter to produce the sort of well-crafted, politically poignant literary graphic memoir in vogue nowadays. Krug’s hodgepodge, notebook style reminded this reviewer of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. But like English translations of heimat, this comparison fails to capture Krug’s emotional and stylistic nuances. Krug’s variegated source material, shifting stylization, and tacit emphasis on text helps her carve out her own place within the graphic memoir genre.

But her diverse assortment of visual material raises a question about Belonging’s connection to comics and the nature of comics writ large. In short, is Belonging a “comic?” The back cover—at least of my review copy—advertises the book as a “visual memoir,” a term I initially assumed to be a semantic device for distancing an essentially comic text from the supposed low-brow, commercial escapism often attributed to comics. But the more I read, the more I wondered whether this might be a valid distinction. Is Belonging distinct from comics, not because of its content, but its form? It utilizes few structural elements typically of comics, such as panels or word balloons. Krug includes several interstitial comic sequences throughout her book, but she tells the majority of her narrative through stylized, handwritten text accompanied by an array of images. Though every page contains some sort of image, nearly all of the pages are so text dense that the singular included image could be removed and not much would be lost in the reading experience. The images become little more than decorative illustrations, a feature that opposes what most cartoonists and comics scholars consider (good) comic art.

Comics scholars have long debated over an all-encompassing definition for the comics medium. Whatever one thinks about this debate and its myriad arguments—I have my own opinion irrelevant to this review—, scholars largely agree on the primacy of the image in comics, that comics are driven by images rather than text. The argument goes that a picture book narrative cannot function without text, but comics can and do operate successfully without any text, e.g. Peter Kuper’s The System and Christophe Chabouté’s Park Bench. Krug’s book walks the line dividing this binary. Throughout Belonging, large sections of text-filled pages suddenly shift into brief, paneled sequences. These transitions happen frequently enough that classifying Belonging as either a wholly text-driven or image-driven work seems inappropriate. Krug perpetually wades the water between, leaving open the question: does Belonging employ comic art as one story-telling device among many, or does its format necessitate expanding the definition of comics as a medium (or does it reveal that such an expansion has already transpired)?

So while Belonging records Krug’s quest for belonging and identity, it ironically disrupts these categories regarding the book’s own relation to the comics medium. Her visual memoir belongs neither solely among picture books nor comics, and if the comics medium ever had a stable definition, Belonging possibly brings that into question as well. Such a disruption coincides with Krug’s intriguing and haunting conclusion on the nature of heimat in Belonging’s epilogue—I refrain from saying here what that conclusion is; interested parties need to read the book to find out. But I’ll end with a confession: as a matter of personal taste, I have never enjoyed literary graphic memoirs. Nonetheless, Belonging proved a compelling read. Krug’s personal reflections and visually compelling style produce an intriguing memoir I suspect will be lauded by devotees of the graphic memoir genre. In that sense, perhaps she has found her heimat.