The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

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You think it’s admirable to survive. Does that mean it’s not admirable not to survive?

This was my second read for the BoutOfBooks readathon. I’d decided to alternate between books and graphic novels to stop myself getting fed up of reading.

Maus is a semi-autobiographical/memoir/biography told by Art Speilman about his father’s experiences as a captive Jew in WWII. Art tells the story through comic strips, describing himself interviewing his father as well as his father’s experience. Art isn’t very much like his father, he feels disconnected from him both because of his dad’s extraordinary past, his general stingy and difficult demeanour and because of Art’s own psychological issues, but despite this, the pair are brought somewhat closer through the writing of his book.

All of the people in the comic appear as animals, Jewish people as mice, Nazi’s as cats, Polish people as pigs, the French as frogs and the one brief appearance of an African American hitchhiker was a dog. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this, as for obvious reasons the book speaks a lot about race and I understand that the holocaust only came to be because people see race as so much more than just skin colour and that the choices of the animals represented that, but it just made me uncomfortable. On the other hand it was a useful tactic for making the imagery less graphic, as did the lack of colour. It would have been easy to sensationalise the book with morbid imagery, but we know it was awful, and I think often stories of war and violence lose some of their credibility when there’s too much emphasis on the violent images. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s necessary to get an accurate idea of the level of brutality enforced upon people, but I think in a graphic novel, it could have been too much. This book is about one man’s experiences and what those experiences did to him as an individual, not a catalogue of all of the horrors of war.

I found Art’s father to be quite unique from the usual ‘protagonist’ in a war story. Usually our storyteller would be sympathetic and likable in order to contrast with the cruelty and hostility of their surroundings and to make us want for them to survive their ordeal. But Art’s dad isn’t sympathetic at all. He’s mean to his wife, he’s inconsiderate of his son, he’s totally the centre of his own universe and frankly, he’s a racist. But even with all of these factors, driving me to dislike the guy –which I did- I still wanted him to succeed and I still pitied his awful past. Art’s father isn’t a bad person, he is just a person and I think that’s what makes this story so powerful, because it doesn’t matter what kind of a person you are, nobody deserves to suffer the way people were and unfortunately are still made to in the name of war. The quote I chose at the beginning really highlighted something I hadn’t really noticed before, that when stories treat the survivors of such horrific ordeals as if it’s their geniality, likability or any other positive attribute that made them survive, it implies that anybody who doesn’t survive isn’t worthy of survival or that they failed somehow, which we all know is nonsense. Because when you’re talking about genocide, people don’t survive because they’re savvy or nice, they survive because they were lucky. And just because they survive doesn’t mean they have to live out the rest of their lives with a saintly glow about them, it won’t necessarily make them empathetic.

There have been so many books and movies about the holocaust, each one giving us a slightly different take on it all, but I think when we’re saturated with such a large amount of it, it’s easy to fictionalise it, so to read something that’s visually so unrealistic, really made me stop and pause and appreciate that what I was seeing had been a reality, and doing so in an entirely original way.

5/5

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