Sixty years after his death, the peripatetic and violent life of one of the most remarkable minor characters in 20th-century history is being retold on the black, white and red pages of a graphic novel.
The anarchist Simón Radowitzky may be half-forgotten today, but his struggles in tsarist Russia, banishment to the “Argentinian Siberia” and participation in the Spanish civil war made him a legendary figure in his own time.
In November 1909, Radowitzky, an 18-year-old Jew who had fled to Buenos Aires to escape the pogroms and political repression in what is now Ukraine, carried out a politically motivated murder.
Incensed at the brutal way in which Ramón Lorenzo Falcón, the chief of the Argentinian federal police, had suppressed recent protests by workers and strikers, Radowitzky threw a bomb into the carriage bearing Falcón and his personal secretary. Both men died from their injuries.
The killer was swiftly captured and, being too young for the death penalty, sentenced to life imprisonment. The term was to be served at the infamous Ushuaia prison in Tierra del Fuego, known as the jail at the end of the world, where he was issued with the prisoner number 155.
Radowitzky languished there for 21 years, contracting tuberculosis, enduring rape, torture, cold and hunger, but somehow managed to resist, and even briefly escape. In doing so he became a hero to his fellow inmates, who called him the Angel of Ushuaia for his leadership and extraordinary endurance.
In 1930, popular pressure forced the Argentinian government to release him. After a spell in Uruguay, he headed to Spain to fight for the republicans. With Franco’s victory in 1939, Radowitzky, along with many others on the losing side, headed to Mexico, where he eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 64.
While Radowitzky’s story has been told before – Bruce Chatwin dedicates five pages of In Patagonia to his life – it has never been told in quite the way Agustín Comotto tells it.
Through a series of flashbacks and over 270 pages, his novel, 155, examines the agonies and survival of an exceptional individual.
Comotto, a fellow exile whose family fled Argentina for Spain after the military coup of 1976, first heard about Radowitzky from his father, a leftwing labour lawyer. As the years went by, he became more and more fascinated with the man, the myth, and the notion of how a person could spend a lifetime in the unwavering service of a cause.
“In Argentina, he’s a bit forgotten, though some people will tell you he’s still celebrated,” says Comotto.
“He was one of the first people in Argentina to spontaneously rise up against a police chief who was very repressive towards the ordinary people and workers. Falcón was part of the most repressive police force that Argentina had had – a force that later became part of the dictatorship.
“He was one of the first popular heroes in the Robin Hood vein. He struck back at those who oppressed the people.”
Comotto, who now lives near Barcelona, was also enthralled by the idea of one man living through, and embodying, so much history.
“I really wanted to tell the story of a person who was born in tsarist Russia, lived in Argentina and then ended up fighting in the Spanish civil war before dying in exile in Mexico.”
The book took six years to research and create. Comotto’s investigations led him from Spain to the Netherlands and on to Ushuaia, where he found Radowitzky’s Argentinian gulag transformed into a tourist destination.
“It was a bit strange,” he says. “Half of the prison is a museum where you can do a guided tour, so I was walking around taking pictures of people who had got off a US cruise liner. What was a place of misery and horror has become an attraction, where you can pay to dress up as a prisoner.”
The author and illustrator’s greatest challenge, however, was figuring out how to render the two decades Radowitzky spent in Ushuaia. “It’s really hard to tell the story of someone who’s in a shoebox.”
To better understand his subject, Comotto read Primo Levi and other accounts of how people managed to survive the concentration camps. As he learned more about their strategies – their ability to separate the mental from the physical and to become desensitised to pain and humiliation – he got the idea of the imprisoned Radowitzky pondering his life in flashback.
A colour scheme also began to suggest itself. Among the black-and-white pages are eruptions of red, which symbolise violence, anarchism and exile.
“There’s red whenever there is violence of any kind. But you will also see it in the sea and in the sky, where it has to do with migration.”
As the son, grandson and great-grandson of immigrants, Comotto feels a certain kinship with Radowitzky. But despite the years he spent researching his life, the revolutionary remains an enigma: a committed humanist who never regretted the taking of two lives, a shy and sensitive soul with an almost preternatural gift for survival, and a man who changed his name in Mexico in the hope of sloughing off his own legend.
“I think I came to understand Simón a bit, but it’s impossible to put yourself in his shoes. What he lived through was comparable to the Nazi concentration camps and no one can know what that was like unless they were actually there. What I do sense, though, is that Simón was a great and spirited humanist who was committed to the cause of justice. As a Jew and an anarchist, he had to live in a world of deep injustices.”