A Survivor's Tale
by Art Spiegelman
a kate west recommendation
Art Spiegelman's 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel "Maus" covers his father Vladek's tragic history during the Holocaust. It's uniqueness lies not only in the fact that the Third Reich is depicted in cartoons, but also that everyone is represented as animals. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Americans are dogs, the French are frogs, the Swedes are reindeer, the British are fish and Gypsies are exotic moths. This device classifies everyone into a highly specific group, just as the Nazis saw them.
Vladek Spiegelman and his wife Anja lived in Poland with their son Richieu. When the Nazis began persecuting people, they sent their child to live with his Aunt Tosha in another Polish ghetto they deemed safer. Unfortunately, she did not feel the same way and poisoned herself and all of her charges, including poor Richieu. Art was born in New York and suffered from living up to the image of a dead brother, even to the point of staying in a mental hospital. When he was released, his mother committed suicide and his father remarried another Holocaust survivor, Mala. "Maus" was the perfect way to deal with these travesties, by simultaneously removing and retaining the human element. The depiction of animals meant they weren't like us, but the action and dialogue said otherwise.
It is a brilliantly poignant portrayal of World War II from the Jewish perspective and how it affects the survivors, even worlds away. Art's father was prejudiced against blacks, even though he was a victim of anti-semitism. Art married Françoise Mouly, a French artist, co-founding Raw Magazine with her (she is a mouse with a French scarf in the cartoon). Never one to back down from a fight, just like his father, Spiegelman spoke out about the recent war on Iraq and greatly lamented September 11 (see below). Vladek's new wife, Mala, suffers from his stubbornness and frugality, left over from the War. The fact that Vladek survived Auschwitz without going completely mad is testament to this resiliency. But he drives Art crazy. The depictions of both ordinary and camp life are truly extraordinarily detailed and the images will stay with you forever. Spiegelman's cutting humor makes it all the more real and accessible, and that much more frightening.
It's an excellent addition to any other historically acclaimed book on the subject. It also raises graphic novelization to a new level. Be sure to read both volumes:
Volume I: My Father Bleeds History
Volume II: And Here Comes Trouble Began
(Spiegelman's New Yorker cover after the September 11 attacks,
right before he resigned in protest of media hypocrisy.)
Maus I & II 2 Volumes Boxed Set