Maus

I had heard of Maus before I ran across copies laying on a banned book table, so of course I had to pick them up. There are two. [Part] I: My father bleeds history, and [Part] II: And here my troubles began. They are both written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman. The first installment was first published in 1973 and the next in 1986. In 1992, Maus won a Pulitzer Prize.

If you’ve not heard of Maus, the cover art may seem a bit daunting. Prominently on the front of both novels is a swastika upon which an icon of a cat is overlaid. Herein lies the metaphor that I liked best – each nationality of people is represented by a different animal. In the case of Maus, the mice are Jews and the cats are Nazis. To elaborate beyond that, the Polish characters are pigs, Americans are dogs, the Swedish are horned deer, the French are frogs, and there’s even a Gypsy butterfly. Ingeniously, when a character is proposing to be “in hiding” they are wearing a mask of whatever nationality they are pretending to be.

I thought it was pretty cheeky to see a mouse, representing a man, wearing a pigs’ mask with little string ties to secure the disguise – though in an insidious way. Anyone whose ever actually worn one of those type of masks knows that they are notorious from working themselves loose and falling aside at the most inconvenient times. The frailty and vulnerability implied by this element of the story I thought was incredibly meaningful.

I felt that as a story about the holocaust, following the plot via cartoon animals was an easier way to absorb the darker elements of the story. Aside from the cover, the entirety of Maus is in black and white. This isn’t a bloody romp through a grotesque period of history made to be vile and shocking. It’s informational. Educational. Spiegelman presents facts of what his father experienced as a Jew surviving Hitler’s reign, as his father presented them, while performing supportive research along the way. Maus I is 159 pages of illustrations. Maus II is 135. I feel that I understand more about the holocaust and it’s impact upon several nations of peoples after having read these two graphic novels than I ever did looking at pictures of bombed buildings and photos of the dead in school.

Why? I suppose it is because those images lacked the right context. In Maus, Spiegelmans’ father Vladek spends the majority of his life during the war apart from his beloved Anja. A cast of characters involving their families and the friendships made and lost along the way made much more sense when told as a story. And, for as many books as there are out there regarding the mass murder of so many individuals, I can’t say that I ever wanted to search them out and read them. Plots regarding the murder of innocents isn’t what I would call reading for pleasure. Admittedly, I even gave pause to reading Maus when Vladek landed in Auschwitz.

It is interesting though as Art Spiegelman characterizes his father in later, ailing but free, years. At one point in the second novel, Vladek’s second wife has moved out, which results in a smattering of food in his kitchen that he can’t eat. He decides to seal the boxes back up and return them to the grocery store. Out of context, we may think that he is miserly and absurd. After reading about how even the smallest portions of bread or drops of soup were monetized and could settle the difference between life and death, one nevertheless has sympathy for the man. I didn’t feel bad that he was trying to get reimbursed for his expenses, but for the realization that even though Vladek is now free, he may never escape the imprisonment of his trauma.

I felt Maus was a well-told story on an important subject. It felt largely unbiased and fair in perspective. (Dear Art apparently suffered a fair deal from his fathers’ stubbornness and quirks, which is also freely admitted throughout the story.) Maus is thoughtfully written, considerately illustrated, and well-worth a few hours to read through. It’s quite an orchestra of characters and perspectives. I’m writing about it (even though I was thinking of ending my blog), because if even one more person picks it up to wonder why such a story would be banned, the time it takes me to write this is well worth it. I love stories that explain why people are the way they are, and how things happened the way they did. Maus is one.

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