The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman

The Complete Maus

I’ve been aware of Art Spiegelman’s Maus for I’m sure twenty years or more. I remember reading one or more reviews of it, and I’ve seen numerous references to it over the years.

It is a graphic novel, i.e., a serious story told in comic book form. It was originally published as two books (actually before that it was published as comic strips)—My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began—but this book combines both volumes.

It is a Holocaust tale—a controversial one for multiple reasons, though on the whole it received very favorable reviews.

One complaint some people had is that the comic book format trivializes its subject matter, and so is especially inappropriate, and insulting, as a means of conveying a Holocaust story. To me, this criticism is easily dismissed. Just because comics have become mostly associated with unserious things like children’s stories, humor, and superhero exploits, really they can be used for just about anything that a book could. Indeed, there have always been comics geared toward adults, even if that was much more the exception than the rule. It’s an art form, a literary form, that is whatever people make it. It’s fitting to use it to convey serious literature, if that’s how people choose to use it.

But the main criticism lodged against the book has to do with perhaps its most attention-grabbing, distinctive, memorable aspect. Spiegelman depicts his characters as animals, grouped according to ethnicity. The Germans are cats, the Jews mice, and the Poles pigs. (There are also a small number of French frogs and American dogs, and maybe one or more other animals that I don’t recall.)

Really it’s just the heads, though. And occasionally tails are visible. But they have the bodies of people, and what they do and say is exactly what they would if they were drawn with human heads.

It can get a little complicated assigning animals to characters. For one thing, plenty of people are more than one thing. German Jews and Polish Jews, for example, fall into multiple categories, but they are depicted as mice, because of course their Jewishness is what determined how they would experience the Holocaust.

When people are trying to pass as something else, they are depicted as wearing masks. So a Jew trying to blend in with Poles is shown as wearing a pig mask over his mouse head.

It’s understandable why some people would object to this, as it arguably demeans Jews as helpless victims, lumps all the Poles together as the equivalent of an animal associated with uncleanliness and gluttony, etc.

I wasn’t troubled by it at all. I’m not sure I can articulate quite why. Certainly it didn’t have any shock value for me, as I was very aware of this characteristic of the work long before I read it. The fact that it’s written by a Jew who is obviously on the side of the Holocaust victims disinclines me to see it as somehow demeaning or anti-Semitic.

I think I just accept it as his artistic decision to make. The novelty of the style makes the work stand out all the more.

The Holocaust story that Spiegelman chooses to relate in this form is that of his father, a concentration camp survivor long since living in the United States. The story is embedded within a further story about the author’s relationship with his father and their working together to bring this project to fruition.

I could see how some people might experience this meta-level material about the process of doing the interviews and putting together the book as distracting or superfluous, but I found myself almost as drawn in by it as by the material set in the 1930s and ’40s.

The elder Spiegelman is presented as not particularly likable. You kind of have to be on his side due to his being a Holocaust survivor, and certainly you can see occasional touchingly human and vulnerable aspects of his character—for instance in how emotionally dependent he is on his son without always wanting to admit it—but you can understand why the author clashes with him so often and finds him such a frustrating person to deal with.

Among other dubious traits, he’s unapologetically racist toward blacks. He and his second wife constantly bicker, and each complains about how the other is dishonest, only cares about money, is abusive, etc.

The author finds it especially hard to forgive his father for destroying all his first wife’s (i.e., the author’s mother’s) diaries and journals that told how she experienced the Holocaust, upon her suicide in 1968. Evidently at the time the father felt it was just too painful to keep that record of something that should be left in the past, though later he changed his mind enough to—with some degree of resistance—sit for interviews to talk about this same subject with his son.

But Spiegelman is always aware of the book this isn’t but could have been—a story that was as much from his mother’s perspective as his father’s.

If there’s an explanation for how his father managed to be one of the small minority of Holocaust survivors—beyond sheer dumb luck—presumably it’s his resourcefulness. The theme of many of his stories of that time is how skillful he was at “organizing” (i.e., obtaining through any means possible—stealing, buying, trading for, talking someone out of, etc.) whatever he needed to survive on that particular day in that particular location.

The title of the second book, or second part of this combined book—And Here My Troubles Began—is a variation on one of the most striking passages in the book, and so is an excellent choice for a title.

The author’s father has already been through unimaginable horrors, including a lengthy stint in Auschwitz. As the Germans are losing the war, they contract to a smaller and smaller area, bringing their prisoners with them. The prisoners are left in train cattle cars for days at a time, where many if not most of them die.

After all that, he arrives at his next destination—Dachau. Recounting this, he utters the line “Here, in Dachau, my troubles began.”

“Began”? It’s almost like a “good news/bad news” joke from Hell. What experience can be so bad that by comparison all that suffering that preceded it doesn’t even rise to the level of “troubles”?

I also think the strip used as the introduction to the book as a whole is well-chosen. In a flashback, Spiegelman recalls running crying to his father as a little boy, after some trivial run-in with some of his buddies. “I-I fell, and my friends skated away without me.”

His father’s response is “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

Uh, yeah, I guess so. Think of the life a person has to have had for that to be where his mind immediately goes in a situation like that.

I could say a lot more about this book. It’s gripping from start to finish. There have been criticisms of it that it’s likely inaccurate in some of its particulars, but I suppose it’s as accurate as one can realistically expect fallible human memory to be. If it’s not exactly what happened to this one victim, certainly it’s very close to what happened to him, and close to what happened to millions of others.

The Complete Maus is a valuable inside perspective on the Holocaust. I seriously doubt I would have liked Spiegelman’s father had I spent time with him in real life, but I’m glad to know his story.

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