Maus is one of those books that you hear about and feel like you probably should read at some point. I guess that makes it a true classic. But what sets it apart from most classics is probably the format – if Jane Eyre had originally been a comic, would we think of it differently?
Winning countless awards since it’s first volume was released in the early 80s, including a Pulitzer, Maus is a comic unlike any other and one that actually goes beyond the Holocaust story-brush it has been painted with over the years.
After finding the complete volumes on my uncle’s shelf when I was staying with him, I decided now was the time to read this extraordinary book.
As his success as a comic book writer and artists began t grow, Art Spiegelman decided to tackle the dark subject of his father’s time in Auschwitz. Sent to the camp along with his wife (Spiegelman’s mother) during the middle of the Second World War, Vladek shares his experiences at the hands of Polish officers and the invading Nazis. Rich and Jewish, Vladek had to use incredible resourcefulness and build careful relationships to survive.
Through hearing Vladek’s story, Spiegelman pieces together why his father is the man he is, and how it all connected to the suicide of his mother. Threaded throughout the accounts of the Holocaust is the fragile relationship Spiegelman had with his father – two men desperate to reconcile their differences but unable to do so. The past is too much for them both.
I know about the Holocaust. I had the history lessons and I’ve watched programs and films covering what happened. I am aware of what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, and others they deemed ‘impure’ and ‘inhuman’. I know that it is awful, tragic, horrific and should never, ever be repeated.
After reading this, I felt that knowledge hit me like a punch to the gut.
I’m not going to try and explain in any great detail how Maus affected me, because I don’t think I can. The true realisation of what happened – of what was done – to these people by other human beings finally stuck inside my heart. I mean, how? How did this actually happen? How could people stand in rooms and make decisions that lead to such atrocity? The minds, the souls, of those responsible are incomprehensible to me. That is what struck me most when reading this.
It is also the balance between what happened to Vladek and the relationship between father and son that makes Maus so extraordinary. It is so honest, and so personal, that you can’t help but feel your are intruding. The blame Spiegelman places on his father for his mother’s suicide (and, therefore, his own subsequent breakdown) is heartbreaking in its honesty, and the detail of these interactions is played out not only in seemingly benign conversations, but in the drawings as well. You see as well as hear as well as read the story of an old man and the son trying to connect to him, to piece together his father’s life, his mother’s life and his own.
The artwork is simple, dark and almost claustrophobic, adding to the atmosphere of the book. The cramped panels in black ink draw you in to the intricacies of the art and the story. Everything is crafted with a stark kind of consideration which all adds to the powerfulness of the story. What was very interesting, was that I didn’t feel the separation of the animals in place of humans. Rather than giving distance to the horrors of what happened, it seems to amplify it; the idea that the Jews were vermin actually highlights the humanity of the story.
And I did learn things about what happened in Auschwitz too. Though so much happened throughout that time that couldn’t possibly be covered in this book, there are small details about time before the camps as well as during Vladek’s time there, that I hadn’t come across before.
I learnt so much. Both terrifying and necessary. This is, cliche as it sounds, one of those books everyone should read.
I’ll finish this review off with a shout-out to my lovely friend Ollie, who has recommended also picking up MetaMaus, the companion to Maus that explains the author’s writing of it. I will definitely be reading that as well – Thanks Ollie!