The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One can hardly call oneself an expert in the genre of graphic novels without having read Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer prizewinning Maus, the story of his father's experience of the Holocaust interwoven with their own complicated contemporary relationship. I did just that, effectively, eight years ago when I wrote my book Comic Book Character (now in its second printing! Ha ha) without doing exhaustive research of the genre. I'm sorry for that, America. I'm repenting of that oversight and others during this, my Year of Overdue Books (books I should have read by this point in my lfe). Maus is doubly appropriate for the project, since I borrowed the two-volume set from a friend seven months ago when I saw it on her bookshelf while we were filming a promotional video for my booklet The Parable of the Unexpected Guest (now in its second printing!). I'm sorry for hoarding your stuff, Rachel. Thanks for your forbearance.
Maus was worth the wait and measured up to everything its broad acclaim made it out to be. How does one tell someone else's Holocaust story in a way that avoids melodrama on one end and reticence or dismissiveness on the other? How do you reawaken disgust and shame and repentance and reverence over a tragedy of the ages that has suffered the neglect and overfamiliarization of a short-memoried and shallow age? How do you convey the complexity of war-torn Poland and Germany and Hungary, or the complexity of the relationship betwen survivors and their children? It turns out that a comic book is uniquely up to the challenge. In bold strokes throughout, Spiegelman represents emotion and hardship both in the past and in the author's present. Portraying Jews as mice and Germans as cats (and French people as frogs), he aids the reader's understanding and communicates the particular tragedy: Nazis hunted, terrorized and devastated the Jews in the same ways that cats play with their prey; Jews were conspicuously Jewish in Europe for no really good reason apart from the broad anti-Semitism that made Naziism possible in the first place. The art in this book isn't pretty, but it's brilliant.
So is the writing. An Eastern European, old-world English dialect carries through the books; you never lose sight of the fact that Spiegelman is being told this story in his father Vladek's second tongue, but the language still is fluid and clear. Spiegelman's own English is unaffected, reinforcing the distance between a father who is usually hard to take and a son who has not yet come to terms with what the Holocaust cost. There's an intimacy between the two, in the sharing of this dreadful but sacred story, that gives full weight to the pain that so often settles in between father and son. The familiarity between the two belies the gravity of the topic; little glimpses of humor punctuate the tragedy and remind the reader that this really happened, that real human beings really did this thing to one another. We identify easily with Spiegelman, and we find ourselves surprised as we come to identify with Vladek. But what's most troubling, what's most powerful, is how we come to recognize ourselves in the villains. The casualness of the evil that pervades the Holocaust is evident in the casualness with which Vladek recalls the atrocities he faced, the lengths he went to in order to survive and protect his family, the steady reports of parents, siblings, cousins and children who died along the way. It's remarkable that Vladek lived through it, that he was able to tap into a seemingly limitless creativity to overcome what seems impossible to overcome. No wonder he was so frustrated by his son's seemingly cavalier approach to life, his apparent lack of ingenuity. No wonder his son was so irritated by his propensity to save meaningless things and destroy personal treasures. You can hardly imagine them understanding each other, but you feel you understand them both.
Maus is subtitled "A Survivor's Tale," which is apt. Vladek is a hero moreso than a victim, even though he and millions of others were victimized in the Holocaust. When you encounter a hero, you do well to listen for wisdom; Vladek's wisdom is summed up succinctly in volume one but embodied throughout: "To die, it's easy . . . But you have to struggle for life!"
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