“To die, it’s easy. But you have to struggle for life.”
– Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus
I have mentioned my love of Twentieth Century History in my writing many times and today I am going to share a little bit of that with you…
This week I finished reading Maus by Art Spiegelman. For those of you who don’t know this book, it is a graphic novel based on the experiences Spiegelman’s parents during the Nazi occupation of Europe and the Holocaust. Maus is a masterpiece and the only graphic novel/comic to win the Pulitzer Prize. Its release was a game changer for the medium; suddenly the comic could deal with darker and more complex issues.
Like most authors, Spiegelman had trouble getting Maus published. Unlike other works, this unflinchingly honest account of the Holocaust had publishers scratching their heads – how on earth would they sell this book? Maus has now been around for over 25 years and its enduring power still affects its readers today. What makes Maus so profound?
Spiegelman has used the cat and mouse metaphor of oppression to tell the story of his father’s experience. Portrayal of Jewish people as rats or vermin has been a frequent image used in anti-Semitic cartoons and propaganda throughout history and is still used in certain parts of the world today. Dehumanisation is at the heart of the Nazi Holocaust and the most powerful message Speigelman wants the reader to understand is that “unimaginable suffering… doesn’t make a person better; it just makes them suffer.”*
Spiegelman could not have been clearer of this message in his portrayal of his father Vladek Spiegelman. The perspectives in Maus vary from modern day New York where Spiegelman is obtaining the story from his father and Vladek’s journey through Poland, Germany and the death camps during the 30’s and 40’s. Vladek is a very complex character and as a reader I struggled with him enormously. His behaviours reflect his experiences during the war and it is something he has never been able to shake. He is overbearing, neurotic and extremely tight in all aspects of his life. All of the other characters in the story find it difficult to be around him and I can see why; there were several points in the story where I was getting so frustrated that I had to close the book and put it down. I would then feel guilty. What right do I have to be annoyed with a character that has experienced more than words can describe? Annoyance was the least of the emotions I felt while reading this book.
Three years ago I was in Europe on the trip of a lifetime. When planning the holiday, I drew on my love of history and art to plan my adventure. One of the most important parts was to follow the events of the twentieth century. For three weeks I devoured the history of Germany and Poland including a visit to Auschwitz. It was horrific and I was completely overwhelmed by the experience. I felt physically sick and emotionally drained and I was only visiting some sixty plus years after the fact. How on earth could anyone actually convey what happened with words and pictures? I am in complete awe of what Spiegelman has achieved. It is a part of my trip that I try not to think about too often but reading Maus bought back all those emotions and more. Spiegelman has done an extraordinary job of telling his father’s story, a story of love, horror and so much pain. It is consuming for all the characters – Spiegelman’s mother committed suicde, Vladek never regained the freedom of life he had before the war and even Spiegelman himself suffered from guilt. While listening to his father’s first hand account, he still felt as though he couldn’t do his father’s story justice without also sharing his own frustrations and anger at the situation.
Maus isn’t an easy read but it is one of the most rewarding in terms of what the reader is able to experience. I have invested a lot of time over the years to learning and understanding that period and so I don’t know how this book would affect the readers who don’t have the same knowledge and experiences. Would they find it more shocking? Or would it become just another story? It will certainly stay with me for a very long time.
I took very few photos from that day and for the first time I have actually felt brave enough to go through them and even share a few of them here today…
* Quote borrowed from the article at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/23/art-spiegelman-maus-25th-anniversary