Lockdown Book Reviews: #2 The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

[Original draft: February, 2013]

I’ve just finished reading Maus, a wonderous and compelling true to life graphic novel set in the back drop of fascist oppression and brutality in Nazi-occupied Poland. There is in my mind, a transported feeling, even more than I normally would get from finishing a book. This is probably because I am sitting at my [ex-]girlfriend’s kitchen table in Helsingborg, Sweden, while she is at work. I have the distinct sensation of being alone in a foreign land, whose collective memory of these pivotal events in human history appear to be forgotten.

As the European Union continues to endure its ‘frenemy’ relationship with the UK, there were perhaps not entirely dissimilar compartmentalisations between war-torn Europe and her neighbouring neutralities. While heroic and conscientious in various local ways, Sweden was not, I have been told, privy to the scenes of war and Holocaust which spread across the rest of Europe in the late 1930s and ’40s. Though on paper a neutral sovereignty – and in fact represented positively in the book by Swedish born Spiegelman, for their pro-refugee stance following the war – Sweden’s King allowed the military branch of the Nazi party use of their railway, in order to transport troops and military equipment to Norway and Finland. They boarded these trains from Helsingborg Central, just 10 minutes from my current location. Memory is something it appears we need reminded of.

Spiegelman’s Maus is a modern day classic, speaking to the universals of power, fear and love, as it does in a dynamic, yet painfully truthful manner. Animals are used to represent groups in a uniquely alegoric fashion, starkly highlighting the brutal realities of prejudice within imbalanced, geopolitical structures. Engaging with the subject of the Holocaust can present with difficulty. Perhaps this is due to our apparent need to relegate human suffering to the ‘massacre’ or ‘genocide’. Or even to deny them, perhaps in an attempt to manage them psychologically (keeping the horrors separate from our own capacities). As Nietzsche put it: “Memory says, ‘I did that.’ Pride replies ‘I could not have done that.’ Eventually, memory yields”.

Spiegelman’s gift is in bridging the story via his father’s recollections. He endears the reader with his father’s broken English, his tales of wit, heroism, and devotion to his wife – through horrific struggle.  But he is careful not to present any of the characters – even his father – in a light other than that which was truthful.

A more visceral adaption of Orwell’s alegory [Animal Farm], animals represent an understanding of the political and ethnic power dynamics at play at the time. Some metaphors are tamer (most can comprehend how the Nazis would be the hunting cats in this tale, and the Americans, the dogs who chased them away).  The casting of Jewish people as mice and non-Jewish Poles as pigs was largely a reference to his father’s attitudes via his experience as a Jewish Pole, which was to the author, significant to honour. Hence, the Jewish people were mice to be killed outright, while the non-Jewish Poles were pigs to be fattened (i.e. exploited) and then eaten. The value in this framing is to bring a level of discomfort to the page – and the discussion of racism into the present.

And so the reader is taken on a no holds barred journey of the lived experiences of his father (Vladek), mother (Anja), and others in their family circles in 1930s and ’40s Poland. The terrified and tortured; the desperate and demoralised. Moving from starvation and displacement to imprisonment, slavery and murder. The tales of the “unimaginable” are imagined on the page, as Spiegelman provides a showreel of his father’s personal accounts. This is a survival story, touching on the profundity of the Jewish experience.  Throughout it all, the tenderness of Vladek and Anja’s mutual care and their hope over despair, is the triumph the reader is fortunate enough to experience.

One of the techniques Spiegelman uses to engender empathy is the form of the graphic novel itself, allowing the reader to more directly experience the changing nature of character, identity, politics and interpretation – between past and present. There are metaphors and there are metaphors upon metaphors, which the author is somehow able to communicate with a wonderful sense of ease and intelligibility. This is particularly helpful in comprehending the difficulties experienced around identity, which continue to have generational repercussions at the personal and political level, for the Jewish diaspora, German people and everyone affected by these events. (See MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman for a more detailed exposition of these points).

Another technique which Spiegelman uses is juxtaposition, paralleling his everyday life to the terrifying history his parents endured. He uses this technique most effectively in engaging readers on the subject of guilt, something which plagued survivors of the Holocaust. 

For me, one scene exemplifies this. Choosing to ignore his father’s early morning phone call request to fix his roof – in favour of drinking coffee in bed with his wife – the reader can both empathise with the author and sense his residual guilt when he next sees his elderly father. This works as a consciousness portal of sorts, when Vladek later explains that, try as they did, he and Anja could not keep their family or friends alive. In experiencing that quivering of the heart, the reader can now begin to comprehend the extremes of this emotion. 

The story didn’t end for those who survived the war. Guilt, like post-traumatic stress, has a scale which is hard to measure.  It’s clear these factors took their toll on the Spiegelmans however, as we are later informed about Anja’s tragic suicide in 1968, 23 years after leaving Aushcwitz-Birkenau.

In my extended family, I have an auntie who recently passed away. As a child, she also lived through the camps in Poland. While her survival was a triumph and a joy, serious mental health issues presented later in life, undoubtedly related to her childhood experiences. The value in a story like Maus is to humanise these experiences, recognising all of our shared responsibility and collective suffering. It’s also certainly to remind us of our memories, and that which must always be valued. As Vladek once said to Anja: “To die is easy…but you have to struggle for life”.

The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Publisher (US): Pantheon, 1996

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