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Art Spiegelman

[Rating:4/5 Stars]

Reviewer: Jill Murphy

Maus is written by Art Spiegelman, an American graphic artist. It tells the story of his father Vladek's experiences under the Nazi regime; how he and his family avoided the concentration camps for a long, long time. There is a second volume which deals with the time his parents spent in Auschwitz before being liberated, reunited, and making their way to the United States. Layered on top of his father's story is Art's story: the story of how the book came to be, and the story of the troubled relationship between the American son and the Polish holocaust survivor father. To me, this double strand of narrative is very important. It seems somehow to add a sense of involvement in the Spiegelman story, a sense of the importance of hearing the stories of your parents and grandparents, a sense of the invaluable contribution personal experience and oral history has to add to your own understanding of your own life today. Art Spiegelman's life is affected by the holocaust in as many ways as is his father's. It is unbearably hard for them both. "Nobody can understand," groans his father at one point, and that stark little cartoon panel says it all really.

Vladek's story begins in 1936 and tells of his life in Poland before it came under the Nazi regime. We see how he met Anja, his wife, how he made the beginnings of a successful career. We see the birth of his first son, Richieu, the brother who didn't make it through the camps: the brother Spiegelman, born in 1948, never met. There are stories from across the border of "those evil Nazi gangsters" and gradually those stories become more and more frightening. When Anja suffers post-natal depression and Vladek takes her to a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia we see, from the train, for the first time, the Swastika flying from a flagpole. And suddenly we see Nazis, depicted here as cats and we realize why Spiegelman has drawn his family, and all the Jews in his book, as mice. You might think that is an easy parallel to draw, but I assure you it is not. It is simple, yes, but it is not easy. It's very simplicity is shocking - Jews were called the vermin of society by the Nazis. From this time on the Spiegelman family find their world disintegrating little by little, until they finally end up at the gates of Auschwitz, gazing at the ovens. I'd not like to tell you much more, fearing to detract from Maus' impact, you really, really must read it for yourself, but the images of lynched men, of families hiding in rubbish dumps and in cellars, of children gnawing on wood to keep hunger pangs at bay, will stay with you for a long time.

Spiegelman is a wonderful cartoonist and has a marvelous ear for dialogue in the same way as does Alan Bennett. His characters seem so alive, despite the awfulness of the situations they are in. In a few cartoon strip words and with simple but very dark pictures a world of persecution springs to very real, three-dimensional life. He's refreshingly honest about himself and the bitterness he feels towards his father too. Art Spiegelman and his father have told the story of the holocaust so well because they each told their different, sometimes conflicting stories and because both stories are true.

Maus has something to tell us all about the peril of entrenched positions, the danger in holding on doggedly to a point of view or an experience, especially a bad one. Art Spiegelman and his father Vladek find their relationship difficult because neither can find themselves able to see through the other's eyes. At one point Spiegelman says to Mala, his step mother, that he's worried about his book because his father looks like such a miserly Jewish stereotype. And indeed, Vladek is a naturally careful man, to put it politely, but his carefulness was cemented by the years of persecution and his experience of the Holocaust. Vladek cannot let this go to make a good relationship with his son any more than Spiegelman himself can prevent the way he blames, in part at least, his father for his mother's suicide. On a personal level these sorts of entrenched positions lead to the break up of marriages, divisions within families and the loss of friendships every day in every country. On a wider level they cause conflict and war. Reading Maus and thinking of this I remembered the news pictures of small children trying to attend school in Northern Ireland and worried even more about the current demonisation of all things Islamic. More so, I think, than any evil deed, such entrenchment of view, such polarisation, prevents peace. When you read it, think about this, think of your own attitudes and if you need to, try to change them. I fail miserably most days, but I'm going to keep on trying.

Spiegelman draws himself and his father in the present day part of his story also as two mice and not two men. I think that's rather sad.

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Maus by Art Spiegelman




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