Read and Tell Monday

My weekend was consumed largely by reading Maus, a graphic narrative, written and drawn by Art Spiegelman.  Maus  is a biography of the author’s father Vladek and is the story of a Polish Jew’s experience and survival of WWII, including a 12 month stay at Auschwitz.  Published in two volumes, the first in 1986, and the second in 1991, Maus has won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award and has been acknowledged as a seminal text. Throughout, each nationality, or race is represented in anthropomorphic form, human bodies support animal heads, with Jews as mice, Germans as cats, the Polish gentiles as pigs and the Americans as dogs.

I found Maus simultaneously horrifying, and yet tragic in its trivialities – the decline of the elderly Vladek, and Art’s father into infirmity is read alongside the young Vladek’s battle to survive under Nazi rule. Spiegelman makes no attempt to illuminate the Holocaust in a context wider than the protagonist’s immediate experience and so at once the reader is faced with Vladek of old and new. His impenetrable miserliness, the bickering with his second wife Mala, and his causal racism, but also the courage, spirit and fortuity  which ensured he survived.

The troubled relationship between father and son, especially Art’s impatience at Vladek’s stubborn tightfistedness almost threatens to overshadow the story of his life as a young man in Poland, and it is not until the last chapters that the true brutalities of life under Nazi rule are revealed. However this only serves to make the work all the more insightful. It is not often that we are able to witness an individual’s narrative so clearly without their flaws and foibles being hidden in the tragedy of their death or the horrors of their experience. Spiegelman’s frustration at his father drives home how undiscriminating death was between 1939 and 1945. It was not only the good or the bad lost, but everyone and anyone, millions succumbed to the Nazi purges in Europe, and all or any could be telling the same story had they had Vladek’s fortune and circumstance.

I have great respect for graphic narratives, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is by far and away one of my most favourite books, and Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is also up there with the best. But Maus comes under a different category – it is an out and out comic in a traditional form. It is no less powerful than other books that have been written however, possibly the very personal interaction that the reader enjoys – seeing the author’s own hand in every frame – makes this work all the more immediate. I would highly recommend Maus, it is genuinely one of the most moving, and equally, most troubling works on the holocaust that I have ever had the privilege to read.