Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 198

The Boxer

by Reinhard Kleist
Genre notes: biography, sports, holocaust narrative
200 pages
ISBN: 1906838771 (Amazon)

Harry “Herschel” Haft spends significant portions of his life being identified by his past. Even as he prepares to disembark onto American shores for the first time, Harry is overwhelmed by turbulent visions from his time in front of Nazi ovens. Inconspicuous moments are haunted by the memories from which his own personal history snakes out to grip him by the throat, offering both paralysis and catalyst. This is Harry at his most American. Occasionally spurred by a kind of romanticism and glimpsing a self he hoped to one day inhabit, Harry throws himself into his boxing—all to the end of finding again the love of his life and making true the faery tale. Only by beating and clawing at the lives of others will he be positioned to take on the identity he dreams for himself. This is Harry at his most American. Finally, the boxer surrenders his dreams to what he imagines must be reality. He takes up a new daily struggle and throws himself into the most immediate of concerns: food, shelter, companionship, progeny. His dreams no longer control him, his past no longer commands him. He is wholly devoted to the now. This is Harry at his most American.

Though of course it isn’t all so simple as that. Even while Harry is who he is in the present, he cannot shake the ghost of the past—ghosts that twist his dreams for the future. The former boxer is harried by the life he once hoped to live and those dreams built of a busted prescience only work to diminish the identity he finally settles into. He’s a man torn at by invented creatures beyond his control, and he is weak in the face of them. Yet simultaneously, this man—this boxer—is full of spit and fire and fight. And that’s actually where half the wonder of Kleist’s work resides.

The Holocaust tale is one of broken hearts and spirits, of human persons reduced to walking ghosts. It’s terror after terror and it breaks everyone, rendering them into the soulless. Beyond even the deaths and murders and rapes and incinerations and gassings, probably the thing that devastates me so entirely is the iron work of destruction the Nazi machine wreaks on the souls of their victims in these stories. Perfectly believable, sure; yet not something I want to see more than a handful of times. Haft, however, is a pugilist. And even if he isn’t yet a boxer when he gets dragged to the camps, he’s born a fighter. He’s got spirit and its nigh unquenchable. The Nazis will go to great lengths to diminish Haft, to strip him of his inner fire; they will essentially destroy him and ruin him for all time. But it will take something greater than Hitler’s mania to turn Haft into the living dead. Because he fights and fights and fights.

Even when he establishes himself in the US boxing circuit, Haft makes certain his boxing trunks are decorated with a Star of David. This could easily be seen wholly as a redemption and repurposement of the star that was used to damn the Jews not even a decade earlier, but there’s more to it than just that. The five-pointed pentagram, associated with Daivd’s royal son, is called the Star of Solomon; it’s the hexagram that is David’s star. And while both kings, Solomon and David, carry their measure of historical fame in the Jewish mythos, David was the warrior—so bloody-handed and vicious in battle that he was forbidden from building a temple for Yahweh by Yahweh himself. Solomon’s reign, on the other hand, was marked by peace, prosperity, and leisure. Solomon’s star could never suit Haft for Harry is every bit the tortured warrior and fighter that King David would have been.

So when we see in The Boxer's opening pages that Haft is broken and crazy, we are driven to find out why. It’s a perfect opening, especially as Kleist immediately juts back to fourteen-year-old Harry (then named Hertzko), full of piss and fire and life. It’s a fantastic setup and by the time Kleist catches us up again to the Harry Haft revealed in the opening pages, it all clicks. We’re sold entirely on the tragedy and victory of his life. All things have come to resolution and we are satisfied.

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