Wednesday, 12 March 2014

My best read of the year! A pre-release review of Reinhard Kleist's 'The Boxer'

So this is not the first time I have written about holocaust related literature on this blog. Just a couple of weeks ago I reviewed the graphic novel ‘We Won’t See Aushwitz’ (read review here) and then, last week, managed to wangle my way into the launch of an up and coming book from the same publishing house titled ‘The Boxer’ by German writer and artist Reinhard Kleist. This is the true story of holocaust survivor Harry Haft, a young Polish Jew who, during the war, was forced to box for the amusement of the SS in the numerous concentration camps. After the war he then travelled to America where he became a professional boxer. 

At first I thought I would shelve this and review some other books first, for fear of being typecast as having some kind of holocaust fixation (and a Self Made Hero fixation too for that matter). But then I read it and I wept. 

Also, it is not very often that I get my hands on a pre release book so, bearing this in mind, I will do my best to give as little away as possible but equally still hopefully get you bubbling with excited anticipation of an imminent fantastic read.

Harry Haft, born Hertzkow Haft, was a Polish Jew from Betchatow, Poland and was sixteen at the start of the second world war. He was one of 8 siblings and his initial fate is sadly predictable as he is swiftly deported by the Nazis to Strezlin, a concentration camp. 

This was never going to be an easy read. What makes Art Spiegelmen’s ‘Maus' vaguely palatable (for want of a better word), is that it detracts from the acts of horror that Spiegelman’s father’s experiences by depicting the characters as mice. So how would Kleist tell the story of someone who at one point works in a death camp crematorium? I knew from attending the launch some of the horrors inside the book and was bracing myself. I was relieved that Kleist dealt with these unspeakably horrific moments sensitively and abstractly. With just some well thought out brush strokes, a multitude of subtle suggestions are made. With little description or dialogue, this works beautifully in demonstrating the horror but without giving you nightmares. There are other moments in the book, far less graphic in their gory detail but equally as harrowing, that are dealt with head on, in brutally forthright detail, which I wasn’t prepared for. However this is no criticism, there is a story here that needed to be told and it’s not about protecting the reader all the time. 

Haft is moved from camp to camp, including Aushwitz where he is 'taken under the wing' of an SS Officer, who notices Haft’s boxing skills. Soon Haft is tasked with boxing other prisoners on a weekly basis for the amusement of the SS soldiers, often killing several opponents in an afternoon. He soon is given the nickname ‘The Jewish Beast’. However, with the allied forces looming, Haft, along with the rest of the inmates are moved on from camp to camp.

As the curtain signalling the end of the war falls on Europe, Haft decides to go to America in pursuit of his childhood sweetheart, Leah, who he has heard managed to flee there before the war. Once in America, he can find no trace of Leah and decides to try his hand at professional boxing. With the promise of fame and more importantly his name being in the papers all he can think about is the potential publicity that might allow Leah to track him down and so Haft takes on every opponent who will fight him. This leads up to the biggest fight of his career against one of the most successful professional boxers of the 20th century: Rocky Marciano.

There are some beautiful moments that demonstrate Haft’s humanity, including his dedication to finding his first love. However, we also see what Haft turns into, a cruel product of the horror inflicted on him, a troubled and angry man who terrifies his own children. It is Haft’s son, Alan, who despite his rocky relationship with his father, wrote the book of Haft’s life and who Kleist was in direct contact with when writing this book. 
Anyone who has read ’The Pianist’, Spiegelman’s ‘Maus' or the survival accounts of Primo Levi and Tadeuz Borowski (both went on to commit suicide) will know how generally any holocaust survivor story demonstrates human nature’s ability to fight in bitterest of suffering. Despite being subjected to unimaginably intolerable misery these individuals survived and ’The Boxer’ is no exception. There are numerous themes that unite all these real life versions of events however, the most prominent for me is the aftermath, the repercussions of living with such darkly terrible memories. Are these survivors people, or are they haunted shells confining the shadows of their past within. All of these stories demonstrate how it isn’t just about achieving your freedom but dealing with the horrors that more often will stay with you for ever.

Kleist is very clearly an artist of note, he is able to adapt his style in accordance with his subject matter. The artwork of one of his other titles ‘Cash: I see a darkness’, forgive me for stating the obvious, effectively utilises inky darkness in virtually every panel. Yet for this book Kleist's style is Eisner-esque, in brush and ink, and has a certain slick grittiness with less use of shadows and blackouts, and achieves abstract detail as required. Kleist also effectively and intelligently utilises flashback imagery throughout the story giving it a beautiful cinematic edginess. 

One thing I will reveal about last page of this book is the list of awards it’s already won in Germany including: German children’s literature award for Best non fiction book, 2013, Best German book award at the Munich comic festival, 2013 and Grand Prix de Lyon at Lyon BD festival. 

Subtle, insightful and astutely executed, if there is one graphic novel you read this year, make it this.

I would put money on a film option already being in the pipes. Reinhard Kleist’s ’The Boxer' is due for UK release in a couple of months.

A few photos from the launch...

Artist and writer Reinhard Kleist (on the right) in conversation with writer Paul Gravett (on the left)

My signed copy of the book (including amazing hand drawn ink sketch done on the spot - why don't all artists do this?)


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