Could you entertain the commandant if it meant your survival? Can we turn horror into art and, dare we say it, humour? This is the question that Gagman – a uniquely uncompromising book by revered cartoonist Dov Fedler and his daughter Joanne Fedler – poses.
Gagman is scattered with comedian’s notes. The first one opens with the lines: “You think you’re a tough audience? I’ve died more times than you’ve belched …”
It’s these words that set the tone for the book, a Holocaust story with a difference and its certainly not the kind of book one would associate with a political and satirical cartoonist. Yet, it is written and illustrated by acclaimed South African cartoonist Dov Fedler along with his daughter Joanne.
During my teens and twenties I gorged on Holocaust books until I could read no more, sickened to a point of no return. The depravity of that particular period and its effect on me made me swear never to read one again, and I never did.
I also avoid holocaust-themed movies and particularly the recent slew superficial ‘holocaust porn’ fiction like that Tattooist of Auschwitz book who’s insulting plot left me brooding darkly for days (I didn’t read it, but read reviews describing it in execrable detail).
And so when iconic cartoonist and writer Dov Fedler (a friend) and his daughter, writer Joanne Fedler (a friend) asked me to take a look at their joint effort, Gagman, I bowed out apologetically. I could simply not deal with its background and catalyst.- the camps of the holocaust.
Also, I try not to review books by friends. But the authors are not just friends, they are dear friends. So I relented and read it over the last few days.
The book is a soaring achievement, a great unrestrained explosion of creative imagination. Part novel, part history, part polemic, part graphic novel, part comedian’s philosophical musings, part confessional, part autobiography.
It is, by design, outside of any easily defined genre.
At is core, it is the story of one man, a minor conman and wiseguy who survives the camps by making the sadistic commandant laugh everyday. By telling jokes.
If he ever stops being funny, he dies. If he is funny, the commandant kills other Jews, but not our Gagman. And so he survives, day by day, as his campmates die around him, killed because of his comic survival skills.
The plot would be clever if it stopped here, but the (short) book grows other layers. The gagman’s relationship with the commandant morphs into an important and surprising climax (I won’t spoil.)
Our hero escapes the camp, meets Goering, finds his way to New York, and hangs on to life. He finds at least some redemption, not though faith, but through his adulation of the comic book hero Superman (created in real life by two Jews from Cleveland) and eventually and definitively from continuing to share his gift of making people laugh.
This book is a entirely new and wildly inventive addition to the canon of ‘serious’ Holocaust literature, notwithstanding that it boasts Jewish humour as its psychic fuel, and it deserves a wide readership.
It now increasingly stocked in various Holocaust and similar museum bookstores worldwide, but sadly not yet with national or international retail bookstores. If you want to read it, ask your bookstore to order though Protea Distributors.
It is an important book. Even if you, like me, cannot bear to read anything related to that sad time. Make an exception of this one.
Review by Steven Boykey Sidley, first posted on the Good Book Appreciation Society FB page
When acclaimed veteran South African cartoonist Dov Fedler celebrated his 82nd birthday recently, he received a gift of the first copy of a book he had spent 35 years working on.
Titled Gagman, the book isn’t full of political and satirical cartoons as one would expect from Fedler, but a Holocaust story with a difference.
The book was conceived in 1985 when, said Fedler, “the story just jumped into my head” and he sat down and “wrote it in a flash”. The story is about a comedian in a concentration camp who survives by entertaining the commandant. “He would give his soul for a new joke,” said Fedler. “He knew that the moment he was no longer entertaining, he would die.”
Fedler said it took him until 1995 to understand where his idea had come from. “I was living on deadlines and every single day, I had to produce a cartoon and it had to be funny. If you break down the word deadline, you have dead and line. So, the story was a metaphor for myself times a thousand. It was me telling history and my story in a way.”
He revealed this recently in a video conversation with his daughter, Joanne, an accomplished author in her own right, and Lewis Levin, a family friend and the architect of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Museum.
“I felt like I grew up with Gagman,” Joanne said. “I remember my dad talking about him when I was a teenager and early adult. I remember writing a poem about him when my dad was 54, and now I’m 54.”
The project went on for many years and took on many iterations. “It wasn’t just the writing of the book but the many illustrations that took time, and it got to a point where it felt like the project was never going to come to fruition,” said Joanne.
Fedler battled to tell a story about someone who had lived through the camps, which wasn’t his own experience. However, the Holocaust certainly played a role in his life.
WE ARE DELIGHTED TO ANNOUNCE THAT, TOGETHER WITH PROTEA DISTRIBUTION, KARAVAN PRESS IS THE SOUTH AFRICAN DISTRIBUTION PARTNER FOR DOV AND JOANNE FEDLER’S HAUNTING NOVEL, GAGMAN.
A prisoner in a WWII concentration camp discovers a superpower that could keep him alive – he can make the commandant laugh by telling jokes. Pushed to ends of his wit and humanity, Gagman is propelled into a spiralling madness in which he would sell his soul for a gag simply to live another day.
Evoking themes from The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Fedler weaves the story of a Faustian bargain brokered in hell, where redemption only comes in the form of a punchline. He must stay funny – or die.
Enhanced by Fedler’s own haunting illustrations, Gagman masterfully juxtaposes humour and pathos, while exploring themes of survivor guilt, desperate determination and the search for the meaning of life in the wake of the Holocaust. Swapping his yellow star for a tattered comic book, Gagman roams the new world and our consciousness determined to find answers to the deepest questions about loss, hope and belonging.
Gagman is a touching and unique tale of survival through unimaginable horror.
PRAISE FOR GAGMAN
“Gagman is a daring and uncompromising work, both allegory and achingly real — a confronting, haunting, and disturbing descent into hell, drawing on word and image to create a world in which to remain sane one must go mad. Dov Fedler totally inhabits his protagonist, and pushes his craft and his imagination to the limits to expose the horrors of Nazism, and to explore the redemptive power of art, humanity and humour.” — Arnold Zable
“Dov Fedler, in Gagman, has plunged the reader into a crazy world where the Holocaust collides with Superman and Nietzche and the result is a virtuosic graphic and written allegory. It is a very original take on a highly contested history – who can tell the story of the Holocaust? Through a pastiche of Talmudic scholarship and confronting black humour, Gagman is a way of looking into the abyss. A 21st century Scheherazade, a tale for our times.” — Sydney Jewish Museum
“Gagman is a searing and brilliant book which does more to expose the horrors of the Nazis than any book since Eli Wiesel’s Night.” — Alan Gold
“With a humour so searing and audacious it made me gasp, revered cartoonist Dov Fedler bears witness to the horrors of the Holocaust in this extraordinary work of startling originality and ingenuity.” — Suzanne Leal, author of The Deceptions
“Gagman is an extraordinary piece of work — strange and haunting and uniquely itself.” — John Maytham
“Can we transform suffering into art and, more outrageously, into humour? Two Jews walk into my heart with a book that made me laugh and cry at the same time. Gagman treads the edge of the forbidden joke, speaking to the histories of all marginalized people. A book of bitter and sweet nuance in which ‘everything is speakable’.” — Tyson Yunkaporta, author of Sand Talk
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
DOV FEDLER, one of South Africa’s legendary political cartoonists (now retired), has been working on this story for 35 years. His earliest dream was to work for Walt Disney but he ended up working for The Star newspaper as their cartoonist in the early 1970’s instead, and had a career that spanned half a century. Gagman is his fourth book. His previous titles include his memoir, Out of Line (Tracey McDonald Publishers, 2015), If You Can Write, You Can Draw (Joanne Fedler Media, 2018) and Starlite Memories (Tafelberg, 2020).
JOANNE FEDLER is an internationally bestselling author of 14 books, speaker and publisher. Her book Things Without a Name has been optioned for a TV mini-series. She is Dov’s writing mentor, editor and middle daughter.