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Maus is Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir of his father Vladek, a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor. It was published originally in two parts and in one complete volume in 2003 and has won him a number of awards. Even those readers with a lot of experience with the heterogeneous field of comic books and graphic literature will be surprised by how dark it is.
Visually, Spiegelman divides his people into various animal groups. Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, the Swedes are reindeer, Americans are dogs and Jews, regardless of nationality, are mice. However, in the text, they are referred to in their national grouping; Jews, again regardless of nationality, are Jews. This pigeon-holing of people will make many readers uncomfortable and it is meant to; the whole point of National Socialism was to turn people into types. It is significant that once one gets into the dialogue-rich story, the animals effectively disappear and the humans emerge, for good and ill.
The story is told in flashback, by Vladek Spiegelman. Vladek is, by his own account, something of a lad about town, with a girlfriend and an eye for someone else – the sweet, modest little Anja Zylberberg, a nice girl from a rich family. She’s the archetypal ideal Jewish catch; he is not. But he’s handsome and fun to be with and he loves her. To the consternation of her family, it isn’t long before Anja agrees to marry him. From that point on, the focus of the narrative moves onto the growing threat from Nazi Germany.
The story is about the Holocaust and the attempted destruction of a people, but it is also about the writing process when the focus of the work is a family member. Vladek has been stubborn all his life – it is, after all, what kept him alive through a nightmare. He is not about to give up now that he’s old and ill.
At times he appears unwilling to talk about his experiences, veering off into scolding Art for some failing or other, complaints about his second wife, Mala, griping about the cost of everything and the modern world in general. At other times, he talks so much Art can barely keep up with him. What he has to say is harrowing, a steady spiral from bigotry into murder on the streets, to mass slaughter in a machine designed for just that. The way the greyscale illustrations look reflect that; the frames start quite large and as the story progresses, they get smaller, more cluttered and pokier, as the Spiegelmans and their family are forced out of their spacious house into two rooms in a ghetto. The lack of colour accentuates the slide from affluence into poverty and thence into horror, mass hangings, a child’s head bashed against a wall, a starved body in the street.
The use of animals as humans is an interesting device. All those Spiegelman deploys have their endearing side – no sewer rats, cockroaches or slimy creatures here. The German cats are mostly predatory and cruel, but never more than when their caps or helmets are pulled down hiding their cat features. They look like the thuggish humans they really are. Towards the end of the book, on p290, Vladek encounters a German family, complete with kitten, sitting in the ruins of their bombed out house. The irony is that he is too numbed by hunger, pain and loss to care:
‘We came away happy. Let the Germans have a little of what they did to the Jews.’
As for the Poles as pigs, some of them are kindly and decent, barely holding onto the threads of their own lives, while others make Orwell’s Napoleon look benign. The camp’s Polish overseers, often drawn from the ranks of the prisoners themselves, are generally among the latter, though there are exceptions. The mice, in the meantime, begin as broadly nice, cuddly and fat, but as their deprivation grows, so does the malice and calculation in their sharp little snouts. Spiegelman is too good at what he does to pretend that the victims are saints and it is most unlikely that Vladek would have let him get away with it. With the slightest tweak of his pencil he turns the pleasantest face into that of the worst playground bully.
Towards the end of the book, the past and present sometimes appear in one frame, for example, on p239 where we see the bodies of four hanged girls alongside Art’s car. This reflects the way that the past and present often seem to blend as we age and for those of us affected by dementia, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. As the present day narrative is set in the United States, a place with its own history of racial persecution, the sight of hanged bodies is a powerful one on two fronts. The girls are the victims of Nazi genocide, but they could also be the strange fruit of a Deep South lynching.
In lesser hands, Maus could have been sentimental and twee. Or it could have been simply tasteless; equating humans with animals is a device that needs care, even under more mundane circumstances. When one is handling a subject as difficult as the Holocaust, it demands enormous sensitivity, but not so much as to crush the point of the story. Spiegelman’s use of animals does not tamp the horror down, it throws it into sharper relief by making us look at the images in a different way. What he offers the reader is an artistic and literary experience which could never be described as enjoyable, but is certainly compelling and likely to stay with the reader long after they put it down.
Penguin London. 2003. ISBN 978-0-14-101-408-1. 295pp.