The biography of a Holocaust survivor, illustrated by – farm animals?
Maus is, on its surface, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. It is at once both a biography of Vladek Speigelman’s survival of Auschwitz, and the autobiography his son, author Art Spiegelman, and how he survives life with his father in America after the war. Throughout two volumes, Speigelman recounts his father’s story as Vladek told it to him in a series of interviews. From his boyhood in a small town in Poland to his early adult years when he met and married Art’s mother Anja, to their desperate bid for freedom and safety as Hitler began to take control of the continent. They have many near misses and experience countless tragedies, and Art retells their story with the perfect mix of empathy, awe, and gratitude, all the while struggling in the present day to deal with his father who has has never really been able to leave his past behind.
What makes Maus different from other Holocaust stories is that Maus tells Valdek’s story in comic format – a medium at the time (1991) thought to be trivial and therefore trivializing of the tragedy Vladek and his family experienced. But this is not the case at all; rather, Spiegelman utilizes the comic medium to bring a new awareness to events that many of us have become desensitized to over time.
In a stunning use of allegory, Spiegelman draws all his Jewish characters as mice – and all the German characters as cats. The symbolism works on every level. At the time, Jews were considered vermin – they were filthy, they bred constantly, and they were everywhere, underfoot, getting in places they didn’t belong. To the Jews, the Germans were like cats, always chasing them, playing with them, always thinking they were better. And Spiegelman doesn’t end his allegory there. The American liberators? They are portrayed as dogs, because who better to chase cats? The Poles? They are pigs in Spiegelman’s book, a harsh critique of how the Poles surrendered too easily like pigs for slaughter, and how they often turned their Jewish neighbours over to the Germans. The French are frogs, the Swedes are reindeer, and while there are no Canadians in his story, if there were, I bet they’d be beavers.
However, Spiegelman’s point is not to enforce the Nazi’s racist stereotypes, but rather to have them self-destruct over the course of his novel. And they do self-destruct, such as when Spiegelman agonizes over how to depict his French wife who converted to Judaism, or when a Nazi cat interrogates a man he thinks is a Jew but who claims to be German. When the book starts, Spiegelman depicts himself as a mouse, but later on, his self-portrait shows him simply wearing a mouse mask.
Spiegelman’s art makes sharp contrast between the scenes set in Europe and the scenes portraying his modern life in America. Vladek’s story is dark and ominous, all thick lines and shading. The contemporary American scenes, by contrast, are for the most part lighter, softer, and with more white space. Maus is a brilliant, moving novel, which tells an old story in a fresh, imaginative way, at once bringing you to tears and opening your mind.