Monday, January 21, 2008

Book Review: Maus

Okay, I cheated. I just knew I wouldn't take on the 800-page Decameron right away. So my book-shopping gene and I went to Barnes & Noble, and I picked up what few "wish list" items were to be found at the local book/crack-house. Among those items was Maus, a cartoon/graphic novel by cartoonist Art Spiegelman that is a memoir and biography of his father, who survived the Holocaust. You might ask, why was this on my list? And I can't give you a satisfactory answer. I can, however, tell you how affecting it is.

Instead of being a realistic depiction of Vladek Spiegelman's story, all of the human characters are represented by animals. The Jews are mice (embracing Hitler's depiction of them as vermin), the Germans are cats (the mouse's natural predator), the Poles are pigs (perhaps a comment on their character and treatment of Jews during the Holocaust), the Americans are dogs ("dog faces," if you will). A few others make appearances, but those are the "animals" that make up most of the story.

The narrative takes two paths: one, with Art the cartoonist (again, a mouse) talking to his father about his experiences during World War II, and the other Vladek's narrative. Vladek is a Polish Jew, and a garrulous one. Miserly, fiercely independent, neurotic, guilt-ridden, and a pack rat, he makes his son feel utterly worthless, guilty, and angry. During the war, we see how the Holocaust shaped and warped him, through the need to grasp at opportunities, learn new skills, think quickly, and just plain survive. As Vladek tells his tale, his son learns all sorts of things that his father had kept secret. It angers him to learn these things so late--Vladek is having health problems--but the revelations also help him and the reader develop some sympathy for the old man.

This is truly an amazing way to tell a story. The book comes in two parts, one of which was written during Spiegelman's original interviews with his father, and one after Vladek had died (in 1982). Animal characters manage to convey the horror, as maps and drawings bring to life the actual conditions of life in Auschwitz, Birkenau, and other places within Europe and America. The memoir is also intensely personal and painful. Spiegelman tapped into something painful in such a new way that the momentary discontinuities and mild humor of the piece swiftly pass away, leaving you with the narrative as it is.

We hear and read and learn these survivors' tales because we must. "Never forget" is the motto of those who did survive, and we owe it to them to do no less, especially as those who lived through the camps now die off from natural causes and old age. Spiegelman manages to turn his art into a method of catharsis unlike any other. As such, it deserves to be read and understood.

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