Monday, 21 May 2012

A review of "The Complete Maus" by Art Spiegelman

Hi People in the Ether,

   "Maus " is perhaps the graphic novel. It is so important and groundbreaking that it found widespread admiration and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It's overwhelming but intimate, its horrific though everyday, its universal and personal.

   Art Spiegelman sets out to tell the story of his father's journey through the Holocaust. This means we learn a lot about Vladek's life before and about the man he becomes having survived the ghetto, work and death camps and death march experiences. There is brutal truth and heartbreaking violence, but there is also self-sacrifice and humanity. It's seeringly autobiographical - it lays bare Art's relationship with Vladek, his attitude to him as a survivor, as a father, as a man. The story of Art's own mental illness and his mother's suicide feature, too. And in telling this personal story he also asks questions about the Holocaust, about how survivors are viewed and how they view themselves. Realisations are profound and subtle - Art's conversations with the therapist tell us a lot about survivor guilt and how successive generations deal with shadows and expectations.

   This collection is my second comic strip/graphic novel story recently. It's obviously very different from Brigg's though the honesty and examination of parents as people is similar. Spiegelman's style of illustration is very different - frenetic, fast, sketchy. It's exclusively black and white and runs like frames from a movie - with great pace and immediacy. There are some set pieces and larger scenes, but for the most part the frames progress the story and don't require the eye to linger very long. 

     Spiegelman's ingenious device of characterising different races and nationalities as different animals (the Jewish characters are depicted as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, the Americans as dogs, the British as fish, the Swedish as deer, the French as frogs) works brilliantly in many ways. It allows immediate recognition of the different groups of players, and each character is somehow readily identified. It means that Spiegelman can depict episodes of visceral acts of violence and gut-wrenching death camp scenes - these are obviously and understandably horrific, heart-breaking, nauseating, disturbing. But the reader can just about handle the images because they are not human figures, even though we are aware that they are depicting human beings. I'm not suggesting this is a desensitisation device - I think it's effective and necessary - we mightn't actually be able to look at those graphic, real, brutal scenes in this comic strip style if they were humans. The characters suit the image style, suit the mode of the story, suit how we are digesting this immense story and these disturbing events.

   I'm sure everyone who reads Maus feels moved, affected, touched. Those who think it's not a worthy way to deal with the subject matter should think again. It might be the most suitable, the most affecting, the most apt. It can stand proud with other Holocaust literature but it also very much so it's own creation, it's own yardstick. It is the tale of a father and son, of how the Holocaust affected the generations after and the relationships that followed. I think everyone should read "Maus".

   Thanks for reading,

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