The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.
If this book hadn’t been a selection for my book club in January, I would never have picked it up. Not because I’m a snob about graphic novels—I think they are legitimate form of literature and very enjoyable to boot. But I might have avoided Maus because of the subject matter—I haven’t read very much about the holocaust and that is by choice. I guess I’m a chicken, but I hate exploring just how terribly we can treat one another. I haven’t yet read Romeo Dallaire’s book about the Rwandan genocide either—I’ve got exactly the same issue with it.
Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities, the fear, and the damage done to those who survived the Second World War. And survival is never taken for granted—it happened when luck and hard work combined to keep people alive. I think that works like this are important to keep the memories of these events alive and in the public consciousness—our first hand witnesses are aging and won’t be with us much longer. The Canadian veterans that I know are in their 80s and 90s, so holocaust survivors will be in the same age range and probably experiencing health problems relating back to war time conditions. This graphic novel format makes this history accessible to a new generation in a form that they can appreciate.
I am of two minds regarding the depictions of various nationalities as animals, Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, etc. On one hand, it insulates us a little bit from the harrowing history that is being related. We can feel a bit of a remove that makes it easier to read. But I can help wondering if that is a good thing? I also a bit bothered by the nationalities being represented by completely different species. After all, we are all one species and if one nationality is capable of genocide, every nationality is capable of it. We’ve had enough atrocities take place since WWII that we know that to be true. Separate species draws the “us” and “them” boundaries just a little too clearly, when we know from the novel itself that some Jews were “collaborators” and some Germans resisted the Nazis. There’s enough bad and good stuff to go around.
I did, however, admire Spiegelman’s brave decision to explore his relationship with his father on the page. It became obvious very early in the narrative that survival itself had not made his father a happy man. Instead, he seemed to become deeply suspicious, rigid in his ideas, selfish, and generally unpleasant. The suicide of his wife (who suffered from mental illness before the war) may have solidified him into this barricaded position, to which he cannot admit his second wife or even his son. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a man who so desperately needed human compassion and love and who kept stubbornly poking it away with a stick. How many generations will it take to remove this psychic damage from families of holocaust survivors? Spiegelman is brave to expose his struggles to help, accept, and love his father—he is loaded with guilt for not having been present during the worst years, for being the child that survived, for disliking his father, for not being able to provide the unconditional support that his father seems to expect. Smaller versions of this play out in many families (I watched my father struggle with miniature versions of these same issues), so in many ways this is a universal story.
A valuable study in human nature and family relationships as well as recent history.