The Forgotten “I”

Marzi: A Memoir
Marzena Sowa, with art by Sylvain Savoia, translated by Anjali Singh
New York: Vertigo Comics, 2011, 230 pp., $17.99, paperback

Reviewed by Marta Bladek

Marzena Sowa, the Polish-born author of the graphic memoir Marzi, describes the tumultuous decade of her childhood, the 1980s, as a time during which “Poles were looking for their own identity. They needed to define themselves as a nation.” Collective discontent with the Communist regime, which led to organized political protest, at once expressed and overrode individual Poles’ needs and aspirations.  “[I]n looking for an ‘us,’ they forgot the ‘I,’” says Sowa, explaining her sense of the incommensurability between her homeland’s struggle for independence and her own desire “to be free, independent, a unit, an individual, an island.” Marzi, the artistic collaboration between Sowa, who wrote the text, and Sylvain Savoia, who created the drawings, shows both the “us” and the “I” in short vignettes.

I was born less than a year before Sowa and grew up in Poland during the time she portrays. Not surprisingly, I found myself deeply moved by her story. It powerfully evokes an era that I and my thirty-something Polish peers—who came of age post-transformation and now lead lives our parents could never have envisioned—remember with more incredulity than nostalgia. Sowa’s memoir is remarkably accurate in its portrayal of my generation’s indelible memories: concrete apartment blocks, winter oranges, frequent blackouts, food ration cards, mushroom picking trips, sledding adventures, long lines in front of empty stores, Christmas carp swimming in bathtubs, and coveted toys from abroad. Importantly, Marzi also depicts the watershed historical events of our childhoods: the imposition of martial law in 1981, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and Poland’s first free elections in 1989.

Readers who came of age elsewhere will find Marzi as illuminating as Poles will find it familiar. In fact, it is precisely those who do not possess an intimate knowledge of life in the Eastern bloc who are Sowa’s intended audience. She explains that she had no desire to revisit her past until Savoia, her partner in life and art, urged her to share the story of her “unusual childhood.”

Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, another graphic memoir about a girlhood under a repressive regime, Marzi offers its western readers an intimate glance at a country on a brink of a revolution.  There are other similarities between Satrapi’s and Sowa’s works. Their protagonists do not merely have similar first names (Marji and Marzi). They are both young inquisitive girls who witness a world changing around them and struggle to make sense of it. Moreover, both Persepolis and Marzi were originally written in French and published in several, separate volumes.  The American edition of Marzi collects the first five installments of the original, but leaves out the most recent one, which came out in January 2011. As a result, the conclusion of the English-language Marzi appears somewhat arbitrary; Sowa’s story is cut short.  The French and American editions also have different color schemes. Departing from the bright-colored original, the American version introduces a markedly more muted color scheme. The change is effective. The sepia-tinted grays, browns, and reds are visual metaphors for the grimness of the times.

If the brownish hues capture the era’s generic bleakness, Sowa’s autobiographical narrative renders its specificity. Born in 1979, just two and a half years before martial law was imposed, she grew up in Stalowa Wola, a small city in southeastern Poland named after the steel mill for which it is best known. Bright and vivacious, Marzi often bemoans being an only child and receiving little attention from her elders, who subscribe to the popular saying, “Children and fish have no voices.” Baffled by and drawn to the adult world, Marzi is a perceptive, albeit silent, observer of her parents’ everyday preoccupations and worries.  She wonders about her father’s tired and puffy eyes:  “Where they like mine once? Wide opened? Did they want to see everything, understand everything, hold everything, too?” With no answer forthcoming, she guesses that “it must be exhaustion” and notices that “all adults wear the same look.”

There are many reasons for the adults’ weariness. Not wanting to miss out on sporadic and limited store deliveries, Marzi’s father often spends the night in line. He and others wait for hours before the stores open just to be able to use their food ration cards. The adults, Marzi notes, are dedicated to making do with little. Her family owns an old car and a black-and-white TV.  They take their vacations in the country where their relatives live.  A picky eater with a sweet tooth, Marzi complains that her mother “only bakes cake every other week and it’s split three ways.” The Christmas carp is made to last for days. Although they try to manage with the groceries that are openly available, the adults also have inventive ways to bypass the empty stores. Like other Poles, Marzi’s family tends a fruit and vegetable garden outside the city. Their weekly “little harvest” is so abundant that they often sell some to their neighbors. However, as city dwellers, they must rely on farmers for meat. Marzi tells of neighbors who pool their money together to buy a freezer for storing the meat they regularly obtain on the black market.

Stressed as the adults around Marzi are about the scarcity of everyday goods, they are even more worried about politics. Marzi’s mother is always afraid her voluble husband will openly criticize the government and be denounced as a result. The girl picks up on recurrent themes in their conversations: freedom, oppression, dignity, and strikes. She does not understand why, after the imposition of the martial law, tanks regularly pass by her bedroom window or why, instead of watching the evening news, people go out on “demonstration walks.” When the official news comes on at 7:30, they turn off their TVs and head outside, in silent protest because, as Marzi’s father explains to her, “they’re not saying anything real.” She intuits, that the cheering during the mandatory Labor Day parade masks the marchers’ discontent. Vaguely aware of the growing unrest, Marzi is at once angry and proud when her father joins the strike at his factory. Although she feels hurt when he leaves her alone with her mother, she understands his reasons. “I’m doing this because I love you. So that you can live in a free country, so that your life can be better than mine,” she imagines him saying.   

As in the passage above, Marzi’s admiration for her father is poignantly conveyed throughout the memoir. Ever patient, empathic, and in good spirits, he plays with his young daughter, takes her sledding, and sides with her when she argues with her mother. In the panels depicting the strike of 1988, Marzi lovingly looks at her father’s rough hands:

The tips of his fingers are yellowed by the unfiltered Popularnes he smokes. They seem tanned too, but nor from the sun. It’s from the factory grease. His nails are dirty and will always look that way. The dirt doesn’t come out anymore. It’s a part of him.


But while she has only affection for hardworking father, Marzi has a strained relationship with her mother.  Constantly displeased and overly critical, she has little patience for her daughter. She never explains anything to Marzi but expects total obedience. Ever practical, she complains that her troublesome daughter acts like a princess, a parasite, a daydreamer. Responding to her mother’s harsh remarks, Marzi says, “I’m not interested in the things of this world, … reality isn’t my thing.” Rather than succumbing, Marzi counters by reciprocating her mother’s disapproval. She scrupulously enumerates her faults, doubts the sincerity of her religious faith, comments unfavorably on her weight, and mocks her dogged pragmatism. There’s some humor in Marzi’s childish criticisms: the adult narrator, angry though she is, understands the daily stresses that account for her mother’s behavior.

Savoia’s illustrations are as evocative of 1980s Poland as Sowa’s narrative. He is Belgian, and thus his drawings are not recreated from memory: he relied on photos, newspaper archives, and films for his realistic depictions. His eye for detail is remarkable. Panels show typical living rooms decorated with the requisite floral rugs, heavily patterned curtains, and TV tables covered with lace tablecloths; elsewhere, it is possible to make out the trash chute and elevator buttons on the fifth-floor landing where Marzi and her friends often play unsupervised. In the countryside where she spends her summers, we see a dog chained to its kennel, a traditional water well, hens trotting around a littered courtyard, horse-drawn carriages, and a herd of cows returning from pasture.  Without disrupting the flow of the English-language text, panels that feature Polish lettering add to Marzi’s visual authenticity. The famous Solidarity logo, for example, figures prominently in the sequence detailing the strikes of 1988 and the elections of 1989.

Savoia’s drawings also capture the emotional toll of life under Communism. The people lined up in front of a store on the day of a new delivery look tired and resigned. As the news spreads about the government’s latest attempts to contain workers’ resistance, the faces of Marzi’s parents register defiance mixed with fear and worry. Although anger is openly expressed on only a few occasions, the panels showing the confrontation between Marzi’s mother and two saleswomen who cheat the girl out of a bag of oranges, a rare treat, suggest just how deep the adults’ suppressed fury runs.

As Marzi poignantly shows, radical sociopolitical shifts deeply affect children who grow up amid events they do not fully comprehend. Sowa’s childhood was far from idyllic and carefree. For a long time, she could not think about the 1980s without resentment. “I didn’t want to carry the weight of my nation, nor search for our identity. In truth, I didn’t care. I had no desire to settle History’s accounts,” she admits. She needed “the distances of geography and time,” she says, to be able to look back at her early years with any measure of “serenity and objectivity.” At once somber and tender, Marzi conveys Sowa’s ambivalence about her past and her reluctance to give in to nostalgia. Instead, Sowa’s narrative, together with Savoia’s illustrations, convey both the immediacy of a child’s perspective and the reflective commentary of the adult she has become.

 

Marta Bladek is a reference librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Her research and publications focus on women's autobiography, Holocaust-related memoirs, and post-Soviet Jewish-American literature.

 

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