Ever since I started dabbling in graphic novels (and maybe even before) I've been hearing about the Maus books. I knew they were about WWII, and they were critically acclaimed. In fact, it is the only graphic novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize.
My husband usually pays very little attention to what I am reading, but when he saw these books sitting on the counter, he did a double-take. Even HE had heard of them.
Synopsis: Art Spiegelman, who has been known for his underground comics in the '60's and '70's, has always struggled with his home life. His mother Anna committed suicide when he was a young man, and he has always had trouble connecting with his father Vladek. To remedy this, he decides to interview his father about he and his mother's experience during the Holocaust. Art then deftly translates this experience into illustrated drawings. Throughout the book, in an earnest attempt to show race and class stratification, Spiegelman depicts Jews as mice, non-Jewish Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs.
His father begins his story telling about how he met Art's mother, and how, before the war, was a resourceful man of many talents. Vladek was always able to make a living, learning any trade quickly. After the Nazi's began their movement against the Jews, however, everything was taken from Vladek, his friends and family, and were forced to move from city to city, hide in cellars or attics, and scrap for food to survive.
At the same time, Art delves into his relationship with his father, his father's idiosyncrasies. Vladek is stubborn, emotionally needy, and insanely frugal, which drives his new wife Mala crazy. Vladek is also a shrewd survivor. Ironically, although Vladek has experienced the worst type of racism possible, is a racist himself, expressing hatred towards African Americans and homosexuals.
The book ends when Vladek and Anna are finally caught and transported to Auschwitz.
My thoughts: Reading about the Holocaust will never be easy. I know this. So why do I constantly surround myself with these books? I like the stories of survival, and I like to hear about this survival from all perspectives. I also feel a kinship with these stories because of my husband's family history.
It does seem counter-intuititve, though, to think that a graphic novel filled with animals would be a hard thing to read, but it was. I actually mentioned this when I was reviewing a graphic novel recently about the Green River Killer. Put it in pictures and the images are forever burned into your mind.
I thought that using animals to symbolize different races and ethnicities was brilliant. At this point, we have all seen pictures of Holocaust victims, and in order to protect our own mental stability, I think we have trained our eyes to blur out the images. Seeing them in the form of mice is jarring. It is something we are not used to seeing, and it forces you to view it as if it were the first time.
When the Jews are attempting to blend into the crowd and avoid German detection, Spiegelman illustrates the mice wearing pig masks in order to look like Poles. I was blown away by this image. Totally blown away. I can't explain WHY this affected me like it did. My words aren't forthcoming.
The story is as intense as it comes. This is street-level survival here, and nothing is held back. I've read it all before, over and over again, but seeing it in pictures, seeing the hangings, the beatings, the bodies...it is physically sickening to see.
I experienced a strange reaction to Art's father Vladek. The man was scrappy and resourceful, and a survivor to his core. I shook my head in admiration for his ability to keep running, keep thinking of ways to outsmart the Germans. At the same time, in old age, he was thoughtless and rude and obnoxious. He was a bigot. He was cruel to his new wife. I couldn't imagine the amount of therapy the author needed to come to terms with their relationship.
The book ends suddenly with Vladek and Anna entering Auschwitz - a cliff-hanger if you will. I'm not sure why Spiegelman chose to handle the story in this way, but obviously one must immediately turn to Maus II to see it through. It isn't hard to imagine what is coming next, but if I learned anything in the process of reading this book, it was that things were going to get rough. I'll be back on Thursday to talk about it.
5 out of 5 stars