Monday, August 11, 2008

Maus I & II

By Kim L
Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman
Rating: 5/5

Also posted at Bold. Blue. Adventure.
Also posted at In Their Shoes

How does a writer describe horrors that are undescribable? Write a fresh story about a period of history that's been so dissected and analyzed it seems every story that can be told has already been told? And most of all, how to write about the Holocaust without being completely overwhelmed by the telling?

Art Spiegelman chose to write his story in a comic book format. It is unlike any other comics I've read before. The illustrations are all in black and white. Different nationalities are different kinds of animals. The Jews are mice, the Poles, pigs and the Germans, cats. Spiegelman never goes into detail as to why he chose to use animals to represent the characters, but it works visually by letting the reader know immediately what nationality particular character is. On a deeper level, there animals can be taken metaphorically; the Jews have to play a cat and mouse game to survive, or mice are seen as vermin, much as the Jews were.

That Vladek managed to survive the Holocaust at all is nothing short of miraculous. His story is full of brushes with death, incredible luck, and a sixth sense for danger that keeps him alive. While in Auschwitz, he finds ways to be resourceful. When needed, he tutors a guard in English, passes himself off as a tinsmith and then as a shoe mender. He finds a way to pass messages to his wife and keep her close by.

Vladek survives, but along the way he is forced to watch nearly all the members of his family die. Each day, he might talk to someone who the next day will be dead of a guard's bullet, or gassed in the chambers, hanged, or simply disappeared. Finding enough food to live to survive the next day is the only thing on anyone's mind.

(You can click on the image to the left to see an example of one of the pages.)

This book is not just about Vladek's Holocaust experience. Framed around it is the story of how Art set out to record and process his father's story. He finds his father at best difficult and at worst downright impossible to be around. His father's overwhelming stinginess is embarrassing (They sneak into a hotel to play bingo for free because it costs $.25 a card to play at the bingo hall; Art cringes in shame when his father tries to seal up a box of cereal and return it to the grocery store, to name a few examples).

There is a particular scene in Maus II where Spiegelman tries to explain to the reader what it is like to write about the Holocaust, what it cost him to write his father's story.

Vladek started working as a tinman in Auschwitz in the spring of 1944... I started working on this page at the very end of February 1987. In May 1987 Francoise and I are expecting a baby... Between May 16, 1944 and May 24, 1944 over 100,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in Auschwitz. In September 1986, after 8 years of work, the first part of Maus was published. It was a critical and commercial success. At least fifteen foreign editions are coming out. I've gotten four serious offers to turn my book into a T.V. special or movie. (I don't wanna.) In May 1968 my mother killed herself. (She left no note.) Lately I've been feeling depressed.

Spiegelman always presents the story in an honest manner, never covering up his conflicts with his father, or his father's volatile relationship with his second wife, but this particular passage struck me as particularly honest. His disjointed thoughts, flitting from his own personal life to the cold facts of the Holocaust and back again, could have easily come across as a distraction to the main story, but Spiegelman incorporates them in such a way that they only enhance the story by showing the reader what it means to be the child of a Holocaust survivor.

Since I've just been talking about this author's honesty, I'll be honest with you, the reader. I avoid most Holocaust novels because they just make me so damned depressed. The organized, methodical way that the Nazis invented new ways to torture fellow human beings, how many people bought into the lie that some people are superior to others... it just sickens me to read about it. So even if you are like me and would rather read the entire dictionary than another Holocaust book, let me tell you why this one is worth your time.

The first thing it's got going for it is that it's a quick read. You could breeze through both books in a couple of hours. Secondly, although it describes the familiar horrors of the overcrowded cattle cars, the shower stalls, the death chambers, this retelling brings something new to the table because the format is so different than anything else you've read on the Holocaust.

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