December 2015

Laura Michele Diener

nonfiction

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans

"There's only one tiny, limping, Jewish girl spreading the socialist word," Rosa Luxemburg's Polish comrades tell her in Kate Evans's graphic biography, Red Rosa. Rosa Luxemburg's Jewishness, her gender, her astounding intellect and independence, even her limp, all served to make her notorious among her political enemies; they also made her beloved among her fellow revolutionaries, as well as generations of Marxists and social idealists. To create Red Rosa, Evans relied on photographs, Marxist texts, and Rosa Luxemburg's writings, mainly her essays, her doctoral dissertation, and her letters. Two hundred and thirty of her letters exist in translation, written to lovers, friends, relatives, and colleagues, published most recently and completely in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, by Verso Press, as a companion volume to a forthcoming fourteen-volume series of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. The new availability of her work to English speakers has made possible a work like Red Rosa, which explores not only Rosa's political zeal, restless intelligence, and her leadership of the German Communist Part and the Spartacist insurrection in Berlin, but her lively personal life and lifelong appreciation of the natural world.

Evans delights in Rosa's physicality and has closely studied photographs to recreate her diminutive physique and iconic doughnut hairstyle with the increasing streaks of grey. We see her age from a sprightly rebellious girl with congenital hip dysplasia growing up in Warsaw to a teenager thwarting convention and demanding a university education, which she achieves upon moving to Zurich in 1889, where she horrifies her mother by gleefully chopping off her hair and embarking upon a healthy romantic life. Evans draws Rosa's encounters with a series of lovers, tender scenes that unapologetically capture the abandon of roly-poly bellies and receding hairlines in the heat of passion, as well as Rosa's hairy legs under cumbersome bloomers. Although much of her life was about flouting nineteenth-century social standards for women, she could not escape the actualities of being female. Evans shows her dealing with domestic violence and weighing a desire for children against the realities of her Bohemian lifestyle.

Throughout, Evans startles and inspires with her beautiful symbiosis of graphic and text. Much of the dialogue, as well as the narration, comes directly from Luxemburg's letters. In one particularly moving scene, Evans takes a 1909 letter from Rosa to her lover Kostya Zetkin, begging him to admit if he no longer loves her, and transforms it into a script of generous renunciation. She then illustrates it with scenes of the couple sorrowfully embracing farewell and clutching at their cat together.

Evans illustrates Rosa's economic theories with boiling kettles, with salt and pepper shakers, and the floating fluff of a dandelion. With these playful everyday images, Evans explains Rosa's theories for the beginning Marxist and explains why they are still relevant today, even though, as Evans mischievously informs us in one of her cameos, "Capitalists no longer wear top hats." Rosa first studied botany and zoology before moving on to economics, political science, and history. Her doctoral thesis, accepted in 1897, was entitled, "The Industrial Development of Poland." Economics captivated her and allowed her an intellectual stronghold from which to analyze the plight of the working classes. Years before terms like globalization and military–industrial complex became household words, Rosa articulated the relationships between capitalism, the military, and the larger world markets. She loved economics, blithely critiquing leading male intellectuals of the day, but it was less a love of numbers, theories, and ciphers, than a wholehearted embrace of humanity. She wanted to understand capitalism so she could help those whom it exploited.

Her universal compassion is best articulated in the incredibly moving picture that forms the cover image as well as a two-page spread in the center of the book. Rosa bows her head with her eyes closed. Her hair is rendered as a landscape of explosions, trenches, tanks, planes overhead, while a line of hapless soldiers marches up the curve of her spine. It is a pictorial representation of her 1916 Junius Pamphlet that decried the horrors of the Great War: "[T]he cannon fodder that was loaded onto the trains in August and September is rotting on the battlefields of Belgium and the Vosges, while profits are springing, like weeds, from the fields of the dead."

Her universal embrace extended past humans to all living things -- she cared for birds, mice, cats, draft oxen; she wouldn't even squash a wasp: "With every fly that one carelessly swats and crushes, the entire world comes to an end." Evans created a remarkably long-lived cat, Mimi, who stood in for the series of pets Luxemburg cared for throughout her life, and, by the end of the book, grows from a playful sidekick into a symbol of affirmation.

Rosa's most beautiful letters, themselves the source of Evans's most moving illustrations, focus on the glories of the natural world. Ironically, most were written from her stint in Wronke Fortress from 1916-1918 and sent to her lover Hans Diefenbach, a physician at the Front. She marveled at the birds who kept her company, the sky she could glimpse above the barbed wire, and proclaimed the day to be a rose in full bloom that she gifted to him. These letters between two people fated to die brutally within two years -- Hans blown apart by a grenade, Rosa beaten and shot, her body thrown into the water -- brim with expressions of life, and as Evans renders them, they become a metonym for the waste of the war -- the villages turned to cemeteries, the countries into deserts. But it is not tragedy that Evans ends with, the tragedy of Rosa's death at the age of forty-seven and the violence of the next decades it portended, but rather the inspiration she left to her comrades and the inspiration she can still bring to those who long for change. The last images of the book, portraying a modern-day jeans-clad Rosa sounding a triumphant cry against global injustice, will move many readers to take action on their own, if only to order a volume of Luxemburg's letters, or an essay against capitalism, to ponder what this remarkable woman might have to say about the times in which we live.

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans
Verso Books
ISBN: 978-1784780999
224 pages