Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Did you wear clogs?"
Good to see René kept up the grand tradition of French sartorial elegance even in the face of such adversity! And also his sense of humour, which I think was probably completely necessary to avoid going stark staring mad when faced with such a situation. The clogs do make sense in context, though, trust me.
Here's the publisher's surprisingly comprehensive and uncensored message to you the reader from behind enemy lines to tell you more...
"In September 1939, René Tardi went to war. Less than a year later, the French army was defeated and he was a prisoner of war, like 1.6 million other French soldiers. After 4 years and 8 months in a POW camp, René returned home, bitter and ashamed.
"Stalag IIB is Jacques Tardi's homage to his father and a testimony to the silent suffering of a generation of men. Based on René's memories, Stalag IIB - the first of two volumes - recounts brutal years of captivity under the Nazis and the POWs' attempts to reclaim moments of humanity. René recalls the roll calls in sub-zero temperatures, daily acts of resistance, crushing boredom - and especially the omnipresent hunger.
"With four decades of cartooning and almost two dozen graphic novels behind him, Jacques Tardi masterfully recreates historical and personal details with remarkable fidelity, guided by extensive research and his father's notes. Featuring some of Tardi's most intense and meticulous drawing, punctuated by sombre greys and punches of red and blue rendered beautifully by Rachel Tardi, Stalag IIB is a personal and artistic triumph."
Yes, this is the first volume of two. This opener encompasses René's own personal lead-up to the war, plus conveying the foolish sense of superiority and bravado of the French people generally, still riding high like the British in their colonial pomp, before their total military humiliation at the hands of the Nazis. It then continues right through René's incarceration in Stalag IIB until to January 29th 1945 when the order to evacuate the camp was given in the face of the unceasing Allied advance. Volume two will cover not only how he made it home in the following months, but how life had irrevocably changed for him afterwards.
For despite all the privations and sufferings experienced in Stalag IIB, which René so eloquent lays out to his son in the form of a conversation here - Jacques frequently walking alongside him as René recounts the daily ordeal of the myriad roll calls, harsh work regimen and the ever-crushing lack of food - the point which stuck with me the most comes from the foreword about a fellow POW, Jean Grange, in which it is heartbreakingly described how every time he tried to talk about his experiences upon returning home he was sarcastically mocked by his father-in-law, a WW1 veteran, as 'the great soldier' and thus gave up and retreated within himself. Terrible.
From Jacque's own introduction, he clearly states what a negative impact being a POW for practically all the war had on his father emotionally, making him extremely bitter and cynical. Which no doubt we will see for ourselves in volume two, yet here the tone is far more of a man determined to survive, not be beaten down, and if he could do some small measure to put grit in the great German war machine, whatever that was, he would do it.
A fascinating glimpse into an often overlooked day-to-day aspect of the war experience, brought to vivid, painful life by one of comics' greatest non-fiction war storytellers.