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The Great Media: Maus, A Survivor's Tale

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The world is inundated with stories of the Holocaust, World War II, Hitler, and all things Nazi Germany.  None of them are quite like Maus.

In the literary world, Holocaust memoirs have a very difficult time standing out from the crowd.  They're often the same terrible, horrific story over and over again.  Live the idyllic life in (insert country).  Anti-Semitism makes life difficult.  Little by little freedoms are taken away.  (Or, German Army comes in and ships everyone out).  Witness horrors beyond all imagining.  Survive somehow.  Mourn for those who did not survive.  I understand and appreciate the need to tell that story, and I understand the psychological cathartic value in simply telling it, even if the person's own story is so similar to the stories other people tell.  But there's no getting around it for the reader.  The stories are pretty much all the same, terrible and important though they are.

In that landscape, Maus manages to stand out because of its stylistic uniqueness, but also because of the skill of its writer.  Maus is a graphic novel, a comic book for those who avoid high-falutin' terms.  The author Art Spiegelman takes full advantage of the flexibility of his medium by creating a fantasy world where Jews are represented by mice, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, non-Jewish Poles are pigs, etc.  Only the symbols for Germans and Jews (predator and its prey) have any apparent significance, but it creates a striking visual.  Despite the broad strokes of choosing these animals, characters are not made into caricatures.  Only the Germans are depicted, almost universally, as something approaching a caricature.  They are undifferentiatedly cruel and arbitrary, and any encounter with a German is dangerous.

Maus4_mediumThe story of the Holocaust is told by Vladek, at the urging of Art, who must beg and threaten him in order to get it out.  There is a dynamic of a father-son story time in there, but the story is horrific, and the father does not particularly want to tell it.  Slowly, little by little, he tells the story of the early days of his marriage to Anja and how they managed to survive the war.  Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman's father Vladek, who survived the Holocaust in Poland, but it also tells the story of Art's relationship with his father, which is fractured and difficult.  In reading the story, we get two different primary views of Vladek.  We get Vladek's view of himself as a younger man, who he describes as intelligent, tough, compassionate, and highly resourceful.  To contrast that, we get Art's view of Vladek as an older man who is stingy, mean, difficult to please, and to get along along with.  The contrast between the two depictions is striking, but it's also possible that there is much truth to both of them.

Much like I believe Akira is about the relationship between Tetsuo and Kanada, I believe Maus is mostly about the relationship between Vladek and those around him, particularly Art.  But not just Art.  The story explores Vladek's and Art's relationship with Art's mother Anja, who was herself a Holocaust survivor and who committed suicide some years later.  The story further explores Vladek's and Art's relationship with Vladek's second wife Mala, who herself survived a concentration camp.  It also explores Art's relationship (of a sort) with his older brother Richieu, who died as a child during the Holocaust, and who Art never met.  While it is never said directly, it becomes clear that the loss of Richieu had a dramatic effect on Vladek, Anja, and Art, all of whom feel his absence decades later.

Both Art and Vladek are complicated people.  Neither is perfect, and neither can be believed to be depicted reliably truthfully.  Is Vladek really as controlling and difficult in the present (of the story) as Art depicts him?  Was Vladek really as intelligent and resourceful during the Holocaust as he depicts himself?  Was Art really the tortured artist in his younger days that he imagines himself to have been?  Is he as noble in the present as he thinks he is?  Is Mala just after Vladek's money like Vladek says?  Or is Mala the put-upon wife of a curmudgeon like she says she is?  All of these questions are for the reader to answer for himself.

My personal conclusion is that Vladek was at one time an intelligent, compassionate, and resourceful person, but his experience in the war and in the Holocaust killed something inside of him, even though it did not kill his body.  It turned him into the bitter, mean, controlling person he is in the time of the story.  I believe he loves his family, but does not have the mental tools to treat them as such.  One wonders how his first wife's suicide fits into this picture, and whether Art secretly blames him for it.

The story is affecting and timeless.  Maus was first published in 1986, with the second volume published in 1991.  It is still referenced as a landmark work of literature, a breakout work of graphic fiction, one of the works that contributed to the rise of the graphic novel as a respected literary form.

And don't be fooled by its medium.  Maus is not a gimmick.  It's not a mediocre story that gathered more attention because of the author's choice of making it a comic book.  Maus would be a very different story if it was told in traditional words-only format.  The anthropomorphic animals add another layer to this story, and the art at once humanizes the characters but also detaches them.  Reading Maus for the first time is a unique experience that cannot be duplicated.