Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
I – My Father Bleeds History
II – …And Here My Troubles Began
Penguin Books, 2003
[WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE, 1992]
CHALLENGE(S): 451 Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, Graphic Novels Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge
Finished 25 May 2010
I have read Holocaust stories before. Like most people, I am familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and I have both read and watched several World War II novels and movies. There is something about such large-scale, institutionalized violence that makes me go back to that period again and again, trying to make sense of it – to really feel what it must have been like, on both sides. As Spiegelman himself notes, it is not something that you can easily get your head around, and in general I have come away from such narratives without really understanding.
That is, until Maus.
I was rather reluctant to begin reading it at first. The art is not a style I find particularly prepossessing, and in the beginning it seemed off-putting; oddly childish for such a serious subject. Spiegelman has drawn each character as a particular animal loosely corresponding to their race – the Germans are cats, the Jews mice, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs, and so on. All of the panels are in black and white, and to my mind they are over-filled, which made it slightly tiresome to read. However, this is personal preference, and once I began reading my lack of affection for the aesthetic style simply ceased to matter.
Maus is the semi-autobiographical memoir of one man’s survival, from pre-war Poland to the dreaded Auschwitz to his final escape at the end of the war. It is also the story of one man’s conflicted relationship with his father, his guilt for his own lack of understanding, and the way the effects of the Holocaust have echoed for generations. The first part of the book covers from the mid-1930s to the winter of 1944, during which time we follow Vladek Spiegelman as he meets and marries Art’s mother, gets called up to the army and becomes a prisoner of war. The second part begins after his escape from the POW camp, when he is betrayed to the Germans and taken, with his wife, to a concentration camp. The narrative switches neatly and seamlessly from past to present, following the story of how the book was created as well as the tale of Vladek’s experiences.
From the beginning, Vladek is not what you might call an easy man to like. He is difficult, suspicious, money-oriented and perhaps a little bit arrogant. He is also resourceful, brave and intelligent. His character is written large across every page, in many ways – as Art himself later remarks – a Jewish caricature, and he only grows more cantankerous as the book winds on. Art’s narrative here is unflinching: he writes with compassion, love, and impatience, a conflicted mixture that any adult child of aging parents can identify with. It is clear his father drives him crazy – it is also clear that he loves and wants to understand him. He is forced to act as both the loving son and the objective chronicler, and this dual role is very difficult to handle, particularly after his father’s death. Nevertheless, he incorporates his personal struggles into the story with an honesty that is as surprising as it is touching.
The memoir itself is vivid and nuanced. There is no attempt to set this up as merely a victim-and-oppressor narrative; we meet Jews who are not necessarily nice people, such as Vladek himself, and his millionaire father-in-law – good people who nevertheless come to horrible ends – Poles who will help them, but only for a price – even one German shell-shocked by the extent of the brutality he encounters in Birkenau. Nor does the Vladek survive through a mixture of luck and his own good nature, as is at times too common in fictionalized accounts: Vladek takes an active part in everything that happens to him, always aware, always looking for a way to escape and to survive. Those attributes which make him manipulative and annoying in the present are the same characteristics which kept him alive in the past, and thus the relation of his experiences serves as an explanation for the current story as well as a story in itself. In short, Art Spiegelman gives us the real story of his father’s life, unencumbered by attempts to simplify the conflict or diminish the pain it inflicted.
I am fairly confident that Maus will continue to haunt me for a long time to come. It is a compelling, amazing read that ends on a beautiful note which (I confess) almost brought me to tears. It is also painful, shocking and uncomfortable: like seeing all the negative parts of human nature on display in excruciating detail. In spite, or possibly because of, this, I found it deeply moving and difficult to put down. Highly recommended.