“Nothing can be built from guilt”

“Nothing can be built from guilt”
“Nothing can be built from guilt”

The Holocaust and Nazi barbarity during the Second World War have been widely explored themes in art and fiction in recent decades, but there are not many works that explore the collective guilt of the German people in the face of the rise of Hitler and the genocide of more than six million Jews. From a familiar and intimate point of view, through the accumulation of small anecdotes, the German-Mallorcan Anna-Lina Mattar (Cologne, 1993) has created a comic that addresses this guilt complex from conversations with her father: The Serpent Ring (Garbuix Books, 2024).

Mattar, who is not only an illustrator but also has a degree in Sociology, has already published a graphic novel, together with Gala Rocabert Navarro, which won the Fnac/Salamandra Prize: In the belly button (Salamandra Graphic, 2021), about the reconstruction of peace in Colombia and the reintegration of guerrillas. This new work also appears on the market supported by a competition, in this case, the Valencia Graphic Novel Prize of the Fundació Alfons el Magnànim, a contest to which Mattar recommends applying, in conversation with this medium: “It’s very good. You present a part of the work and, if you win, they give you a deadline to develop it completely. In my year only seventeen people applied, which is not many.” In fact, in the 2024 edition of the awards, the comic category was declared void.

The genesis of the work

It all began, according to the author, in a very organic way. “I first made a short comic about the story of the ring and my grandmother, which gives the work its title,” explains Mattar. In it, she tells how her grandmother accidentally found a ring with a snake carved into it inside a sofa, which the Americans had thrown away from a public building when they occupied Germany. “I showed my father this story and he began to tell me more things. And I thought that perhaps there was a long work there. I was drawing what she told me, I was showing it to him, she told me more things… It was like a conversation between the two of us,” she describes.

A conversation that has not been easy. “I am 33 years old and this is the first time I have spoken to my father about all this,” Mattar admits. “It has been difficult, especially because my father finds it difficult to talk about the Second World War. He could talk about his mother, but not about the Holocaust. But it is true that, starting with the little anecdote about the ring, which had been told thousands of times in my house, a gap has opened up where I can start to dig and investigate what happened to my family at that time.” Despite believing that the book has helped both father and daughter, the author does not yet know what he thinks of her work: “I think he is still digesting it.” But she does believe that she can now be more at peace with the past: “I feel this, I have explained it and I am closing it.”

The consequences of guilt

The Serpent Ring The book makes one think almost from the first pages of the concept of post-memory coined by Marianne Hirsch, which alludes to the impact that the trauma of one generation has on the next. In this regard, Anna-Lina Mattar considers that the memories of her parents have been very important in her life: “Perhaps because the only Germans I have any contact with are my father and mother, and my father has all this very engraved in his mind. My mother not so much, I don’t know why, perhaps she has dealt with it in a different way.” But Mattar was actually raised outside of Germany and does not have a very close connection to the country.

“I haven’t travelled there much. When my grandparents were alive we went there more, but now it’s been a long time since I’ve been there. I’ve never lived in Germany and I don’t have much ties to it. I don’t feel part of its national history. But I don’t really feel part of any of them,” she says. This distance, in her opinion, makes her reflect more “on what it means to be German, this national identity.”

The collective guilt of German society is very present, and the author clearly perceives it in her father’s story and memories. “It is Germany itself that has instilled this,” she says. “Nothing can be built from guilt. I think it is a responsibility that one feels, but it seems strange to me to feel responsibility for the specific actions of people who are not me and with whom I have nothing to do. I can feel a responsibility for memory, for how you explain it and how you interpret it,” Mattar reflects.

“Sometimes I have thought about what I would have done, but I don’t know if it’s a very useful reflection,” explains the cartoonist. “I suppose I would think about surviving and taking care of my family. And then, if you can, you do something to help, sometimes very small things, but they can change some things,” she continues. However, the author is aware that “individual responsibility is completely blurred in a situation like this.”

One of the consequences of this national guilt is the adherence to and defence of Israel’s position in the Palestinian conflict, which has led the German authorities in recent months to prevent demonstrations or to censor acts in favour of Palestine, as happened when they prevented Yanis Varoufakis from entering the country. “No matter how often people repeat the phrase ‘this cannot happen again’, something like this can happen again,” says Mattar, who sees the German position as very negative: “There is an inability to understand that one thing has nothing to do with the other; it is surprising.”

References in the graphic novel

The Serpent Ring This is an atypical comic, without conventional panels or speech bubbles. “I think that has to do with the fact that I work a lot in illustration, and in illustrated books in particular, and I feel more comfortable in a format that is not that of the traditional comic,” explains Anna-Lina Mattar. However, the author recognises many more references in comics than in any other medium.

In addition to the inevitable Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1981-1991) by Art Spiegelman, and the works of the Spanish Paco Roca, the cartoonist states that Heimat. Far from my home (2020) by German author Nora Krug was very fond of Mattar, which is hardly surprising, as the book also explores Germany’s past and collective guilt over the Holocaust. However, unlike Krug, when Mattar has to introduce documents, objects or photographs she draws them instead of using them directly: “I think I don’t do it like her to maintain the graphic tone of the work. But also because in my case they are short pieces of stories that are linked together, and introducing different things in between seemed strange to me,” explains the cartoonist.

The author says she is happy with the reception of her work so far. “There is interest in the subject,” she says, “even though it happened 80 years ago. We are at a time when it is very important to know the past and try to prevent it from happening again. Many people, when they read it, start telling me the story of their grandparents, or tell me that it has moved them to ask them. I think it is great that it encourages people to investigate their family history,” she says. Although still in a very embryonic phase, the artist already has some ideas for new books, which will continue along the lines of non-fiction and research. She confesses that the promotion of The Serpent Ring At the moment, it is taking up her time. And although it is too early for international editions, when Anna-Lina Mattar is asked about them, she answers without hesitation: “I would love to see it published in Germany.”

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