How did Esther, a bright young girl from New York’s Lower East Side, at the turn of the last century, find herself darning old stockings for prostitutes? She seemed to have come from a decent working class family. Her twin sister, Fanya, was always the studious one. But then there was their mother consumed by her own desires. And their father, all but forgotten by his wife sleeping with man after man. There is something to be said for cruel fate. And maybe Esther invited her own checkered destiny. Life becomes so complex, so quickly, a life that should have been simple and sweet. This is Leela Corman’s sumptuous graphic novel, “Unterzakhn.”
Shouldn’t life be simple and sweet? Not for Fanya and Esther. Their lives, in a few short years, would become entrenched to the point of no return. We always have choices in life but life keeps moving. Fanya works for the local abortionist. Esther works in a brothel. They are twelve-year-olds in 1912, options are slim, their fates are sealed. Bronia, the abortionist, provides the only thing close to parental advice to Fanya: avoid men. Miss Lucille, the madam, has advice for Esther: become a dancer. The stage is set. It is a sorry bargain. How the two girls survive is the story.
Corman weaves not only the story of the twin sisters but the story of Isaac, their father, and his youth in Russia. We go back to 1895. Hope and youth go hand in hand even in the face of great terror. When the Cossacks kill Isaac’s mother and sister, he must flee. Later, much later, he will find himself naked with a beautiful village girl. It is paradise but only momentary. After she deserts him, his youth is essentially over with. His destiny awaits him in America.
The characters in this story are not mere symbols. Even the most despicable character, the girl’s mother, is compelling. We feel for Isaac and his gentle promise. We feel for Fanya and Esther, who may never have truly contemplated their futures as children, prisoners to fate’s tracks laid down for them long before they were even born. And we consider existential issues. What choices could the two sisters have made in their lives? How influenced were they by their environment? How much does morality play in one’s life? And the girls do have choices to make. For a moment, after Esther had already established herself as a sex worker, she is intrigued by Joe, a curious client with a foot fetish. For a moment, she could have taken Joe. Or Fanya, after she was fully committed to working for women’s issues, can not tolerate the idea of marrying Sal, her lover, even though the match promised the two of them happiness. Choices come and go. And life keeps moving.
Corman’s writing and artwork make for a very energetic combination. Her brushwork is as bold as her sharp narrative. Corman’s vision works well with expressing women’s issues, the Jewish struggle, tenement life, and the dreams of her characters, whether thwarted or painfully realized. When the end comes, it is swift and resounding. Fate is fate. You live or you die. You survive or you transcend.