Review: Barbara Yelin’s ‘Irmina’ shows how history destroys us in little ways

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Quiet and brooding, while still warm and with a great delicacy, Barbara Yelin’s Irmina takes the author’s own discovery of her grandmother’s World War II era diaries and letters, and applies the resulting biography to higher philosophical heights that really concern the way any of us encounter the world.

Irmina is a young German girl who makes her way to London to find her way in the world. Traversing the social structures there and trying to find a place to call home as she tries to secure a future for herself, two men loom around her, having a major impact on her life. One is Howard Green, a black student at Oxford, a native of Barbados, and a courteous and charming young man who becomes her constant companion. The other is Adolf Hitler.

Irmina encounters England through Howard. She is a foreigner, too, and can bond with that aspect of him and form a sweet friendship with undertones of romance. Naturally, she is unhappy with the often subtle, though often not, racism Howard faces from his school and fellow students. Irmina has to deal with her own version in the form of constant quizzing about the state of Germany, the leadership of Hitler, and the judgmental responses when she expresses a passive neutrality while she attends to her own life.

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Eventually, Irmina returns to Germany with the intention of coming back to England, and we see how her life unfolds during the tumult of Nazi Germany. It is not a happy existence, and yet Irmina is a survivor. The mundanity of her life stands in stark contrast to the period of destruction and genocide that it takes place in, following a period of half-heartedly accepting idealistic Nazi nationalism as a promise for a better future.

The book concludes with a later-life Irmina facing ghosts from the past, including a manifestation of her own young potential

Yelin presents Irmina’s story with a casual visual poetry that depicts her surroundings and her position in that space as crucial reminders of her place in the world. It’s a dark universe that Irmina exists in, even when she’s hopeful, and Yelin’s art also captures that. The story unfolds at a calm pace, taking the time to get to know the central character and how she functions in the world, letting the reader see how the extremely small moments of a life can send it careening in unwanted directions.

Irmina couldn’t have come about at a better time for American readership. As the word “fascist” gets bandied around in regard to Donald Trump, each of us has had to do our own work figuring out what it means to our relationships with friends and family who support his candidacy. This not to say whether Trump is a fascist or not — just to point out another fork in the road where real consideration about the impact on the lives of everyday people.

The relationship between our current fork in the road and Irmina’s is not as specific as I’m suggesting. It’s a struggle that exists throughout history, across scores of nations. As Dr. Alexander Korb says in the book’s marvelous afterword, “people experience the commotions of history first and foremost through their everyday lives, so that personal watersheds like first love, choosing a profession, the birth of a child or moving house can be of greater biographical significance than major historical events.”

That’s important to understand as we consider the story of Irmina herself and of your Trump-supporting brother-in-law. Politics are not the personal, but the personal is the filter through which we respond to them. The personal can be as important as the wider good.

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For Irmina, the regret for unrealized possibilities that wraps around her entire life is particularly heavy not for the wider historical concerns, but for the way they obstructed her own path, took advantage of her own weaknesses, and conspired to make her culpable in her own regrets.

In the case of ordinary people swept up in history rather than driving it, it can sometimes be hard to deem them as good or evil, as doing the right thing or wrong thing. A true understanding of humanity shows that any given person is not the same person 30 years later. Most 50-year-olds can tell you that.

So we’re left with how to judge Irmina. Can we really? I’m sure some feel they can, feel it’s quite easy to do and exhibit a level of righteousness about it. But a normal human being is a bundle of grayness. People aren’t that simple. Being in the moment isn’t that simple. Not being a victim is sometimes very difficult.

Yelin understands all this, and also operates from the point that without this level of investigation in order to understand, we will not move forward as a species. Condemnation is not the answer in so many cases.

With Irmina, Yelin illustrates a bigger representation these realities which so many of us, so imperfect we are, have faced in our own little ways. Irmina is each of  us, not just some of us, and that’s the immense power and beauty of Yelin’s remarkable book.

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