Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Complete Maus (Maus, #1-2) by Art Spiegelman

What a fantastic book for our book club discussion where members ranged in age from 13-50 plus. Media propaganda and popular culture have a plethora of anti-semitic caricatures and stereotypes used throughout history to sway public opinion. Art Spiegelman was taking a course in college studying this type of propaganda and political art in comics when he came up with the idea of writing a comic book on his father's survival of the Holocaust. He studied artists such as comic writer, R. Crumb, who drew anti-semitic cartoons against African Americans and Jews during the 1960s. He also studied German political cartoonists like Phillipp Rupprecht, a.k.a.Fips, who worked creating Nazi propaganda during WWII where Jews were portrayed as vicious rats and made scapegoats for various reasons such as the economic problems following WWI. Spiegelman explains this in an article promoting his book, MetaMaus, that it was out of this university class that the idea for writing this graphic novel took seed (Spiegelman).

Spiegelman takes this idea of vermin and turns his father's story into one where Jews are represented as helpless mice; an uncomfortable yet ironic mirror of negative political caricatures. The mice have no expressions on their mouths only when they scream or cry and the pictures are simple, not overly detailed. One person suggested during book club that the lack of a mouth was a symbol of silence while another brought up that Hitler gassed Jews using the same pesticide used to exterminate vermin. The attempt to extinguish a race was conducted in a frighteningly systematic way.

Spiegelman's mice are fearful, loving, and burrow underground to hide from the Nazis.  He tells the story of his father's remarkable resourcefulness and survival skills during a terrible time and the abstraction of anthropomorphizing the characters as mice helps put distance between the horrors of the story making it accessible to a wider and younger audience. The simple illustrations don't distract from the narrative. If the pictures were too detailed, the story flow or fluency might become too interrupted.

I was uncomfortable with the anthropomorphic representations: Jews are mice, Poles pigs, French frogs, German's cats, and Americans dogs. However, the negative caricatures are perhaps the author's way to point to the political and manipulative power of those in government who use images to demean ethnic groups. Or is this representing his father's racist views. He hated Poles and Blacks. Perhaps this is addressed in, "MetaMaus," his book about writing "Maus."

When in the present, the author portrays himself as wearing a mask of a mouse. Is he trying to unmask stereotypes or is it about being a second generation survivor of the Holocaust - a child whose father passed on his guilt of surviving when others didn't? Or is Speigelman symbolizing how difficult it is to write about something that he didn't experience? This is the memory of an event that his father narrates and he wasn't there and doesn't know the details. The author is constructing a past and identity that seems futile; hence, the Samuel Beckett quote and writer's block that is revealed in the therapist session. The comic took 13 years to write leading him to therapy sessions. Or maybe he is trying to unmask his own identity and come to terms with his own trauma.

The story is framed by the author interviewing his father whose behavior was irrational, contradictory, and loving at times; yet, understandable as someone who had to survive by his wits and broad base of knowledge during the Holocaust. His son had an inferiority complex never feeling good enough, but the father seemed to be projecting his Holocaust survival skills onto his son in their relationship. It becomes evident as the father's tale unfolds that he survived Auschwitz because he knew a little bit of many jobs and was able to fake it until he gained new skills; he shows this as he becomes a cobbler, tinsmith, and salesman, to name a few. He also bribed when necessary, saving his bread and trading to get some protection. If he didn't have the answer, he found someone that did. Spiegelman captures the complexity of his father's love, flaws, and damage caused by the Holocaust through the metafictional story of their relationship as he interviews him for the book he is writing.

The story also shows the author struggling with guilt. He feels guilty that his book was so successful it won the Pulitzer Prize and that he actually profited from the Holocaust. Spiegelman discusses his guilt with a therapist, and his ambivalence toward it:  "No matter what I accomplish, it doesn't seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz." The therapist suggests that his father took his guilt out on him for surviving the camps. The therapist also says that the victims can't tell their story. Spiegelman quotes Samuel Beckett, "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness" revealing how words are necessary to tell this tragic story but inadequate.

Quoting Beckett shows how Spiegelman stumbles to find words to name the unnameable. The novel has an insert about his mother's suicide when he was young. He expresses a desire to know her story but his father has burned all her diaries. Much of the story revolves around the unresolved trauma of his father losing his firstborn, Richlieu, and the death of the mother. Her story is untold and silent just like the mouths of the mice. Spiegelman must deal with that trauma in his own way.  In a powerful ending, when Spiegelman's father's health is failing he calls the author his dead first son's name, Richlieu, revealing just how deep the loss has been for him. A terrific book and not to be missed.

5 Smileys

No comments:

Post a Comment