Book Response -- Art Spiegelman's "Maus"

My selected book for this week was Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I know that Maus was supposed to be one of the choice books, and I said in my previous response that Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli's DMZ was my favorite graphic novel ever, but Maus is definitely in my top five and I jumped at the chance to read it again.

Maus combines two interwoven stories revolving around the Spiegelman family. In the 1970s, Art Spiegelman (as a fictionalized version of himself) interviews his father Vladek, a Jewish veteran of the Polish Army in World War II and a Holocaust survivor, over a period of several years or his new book. The events Vladek recounts to his son are then portrayed through Vladek's own eyes as they happened in 1939-1945. Normally a story like this would be unremarkable, given its similarity to many other accounts of the Holocaust, but Spiegelman makes one vital change: he draws all the characters as animals. Jews are portrayed as mice (Maus is German for mouse, unsurprisingly), Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, and so on. There are even permutations of each group, such as an African-American being drawn as an all-black dog, German Jews being drawn as mice with cat's stripes or cats with mouse whiskers, or Jews posing as non-Jewish Poles being drawn as mice wearing pig masks.

I love Maus not only for its rich symbolism, which I'll get into later, but also for its fundamentally relatable quality. Art and Vladek don't get along; their relationship has been strained ever since the death of Art's mother Anja (also a Holocaust survivor) during his teen years, the aftermath Art recorded in a short comic in the middle of the book (with human characters, not animals). Art notes to his wife at one point that Vladek displays all the stereotypes of "the miserly old Jew". Vladek is so distraught with guilt and grief over Anja's death that he withdraws into his own little bubble, irritated by any intruders. When Art stirs up his father's painful old memories for his book, the tension comes to a head as Vladek relives his days as a concentration camp inmate. As the interviews progress, Art realizes that the Vladek he knows--a bitter, cantankerous, penny-pinching old man whom he at least partially blames for his mother's death--is completely at odds with the historical Vladek's extraordinary feats of perseverance, selflessness, and survival. I say this situation is relatable not because I know a Holocaust survivor, but because Art and Vladek's relationship is so much like the one I have with my own father, it's eerie. Just as Art and Vladek bicker over insignificant things like using wooden coat hangers for guests when a wire one would do perfectly, so too do my dad and I not see eye-to-eye on petty issues. Vladek's use of the word "shvartser," the Yiddish equivalent of "nigger," to describe a black character--which comes as a shocker, since Holocaust survivors should be experts on the evils of racism--parallels with my dad, who I've heard make occasional derogatory comments that I don't agree with about other racial groups. By the end of the book, the trials and tribulations that Art and Vladek go through--Art by dealing with his father's eccentricities and foibles, Vladek by reliving traumatic memories of his time in Auschwitz--help them understand each other better, just as my own dad and I had to get into a few major fights before we understood each other better.

That said, I'd like to jump back a little in the discussion and delve a little deeper into Spiegelman's liberal use of symbolism. As I said earlier, the Jews, both during Vladek's flashbacks and while Art interviews him, are portrayed as mice. This falls directly in line with the Nazis' view of the Jews as vermin to be exterminated. However, this is also a nod to the Jews' need to hide from the Gestapo in German-occupied territory: mice must hide from cats or be killed. On the reverse, the portrayal of Germans as cats shows the cruel nature of the Holocaust: cats don't just kill and eat mice, they capture and toy with them first. In the Nazis' view, Jews were the natural enemies of all true Aryans, just as cats are the natural enemies of mice, and thus did they justify the systematic murder of any European Jews they could find.

Masks are an important symbol as well. While in the Polish Army, Vladek wears a pig mask to pass himself off as a non-Jewish Pole when he is captured during the German blitzkrieg at the outbreak of World War II. Upon his release and repatriation, he and Anja must walk the streets of their hometown, Sosnowiec, wearing pig masks in order to evade the cats of the Gestapo. Spiegelman has said in interviews that this technique, along with his general portrayal of humans as animals, was intended to show the absurdity of racial profiling. However, I also took away a second meaning--that, at the end of the day, humans and animals really aren't all that different in behavior.

The most significant symbol, however, is that of Vladek's exercise bike. Whenever Art interviews him in the '70s, Vladek hops on the bike and begins to pedal as he recounts the events of his Holocaust experience. The faster he pedals, the more intense the memories get. For example, there is a scene in the book about Vladek and Anja's first son (Art's older brother) Richieu, who was born before the war and was only a small child at the time of the German occupation. He was poisoned by an aunt out of fear of capture by the Nazis and deportation to a concentration camp. As the focus shifts back to the '70s, there is the older Vladek, furiously pedaling away while Art looks on with his tape recorder. The use of a stationary bike, rather than some other form of exercise equipment, is key: Vladek wants to leave the past behind, but no matter how hard he tries, no matter how fast he pedals, he simply can't outrun it. The memories will always remain, and rather than confront them, Vladek shuts them out--until Art pushes him for more information.

Finally, the drawing style is simple, yet effective. Spiegelman uses no colored ink in Maus; everything is drawn in black and white, with the single exception of the aforementioned mid-book mini-comic "Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History," which is drawn mostly in varying shades of gray. Characters are told apart only by their clothing. The lines are sharp, almost angular. This serves a twofold purpose: first, to show the stark contrast between Art and Vladek, as well as the contrast been the former's perception of the latter and the reality; second, to once again show just how absurd it is to divide a population along racial lines. Almost all the characters in each group of animals are indistinguishable from their fellows, except for clothing. According to an interview he gave in 1991, Spiegelman stated that he purposefully intended to make every character of a given nationality look alike, because "these metaphors...are intended to self-destruct in my book--and I think they do self-destruct."

This was not the first time I read Maus, but at least for me, this book never gets old. Rich in symbolism, heartbreakingly tragic, wryly funny, and poignantly written, this ought to be required reading in every high school literature class. At least in my opinion, it's that important.

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This page contains a single entry by sche0718 published on December 8, 2010 9:26 AM.

Book Response -- Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese" was the previous entry in this blog.

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