Wednesday, 29 February 2012
In my book group we have gone from the sublime (Therese Raquin and Never Let Me Go) to the ridiculous (The Finkler Question and The Wind Up Girl) but we've never before hit on something quite like Maus: A Survivor's Tale.
Written and drawn by Art Spiegelman, it's sort of half a biography of his father and Holocaust survivor Vladek Speigelman and half a meditation on what it means to live in a world capable of such atrocities and the deep wounds it left behind to resonate through the ensuing generations. It also covers his mother's experience during the Holocaust and her subsequent suicide 20 years later and the present day life and death of his father in New York.
It's a world where Jews are drawn as mice, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, Americans as dogs and Nazis as cats and yet every single one are supremely human.
I can safely say it's one of the most affective and impressive books I have ever read. And it's a fecking comic. I struggle with graphic novels in general, mostly because of their content I think. Superheros bore me, although it has been pointed out to me the Jewish origins of many of the great super hero comic book creators and artists. Can't be a conincidence, surely?
I don't know if it's the simplictity of hearing his father narrate what happened to him. The sudden and rapid demise of the living conditions he and his family had to endure is terrifying. Three years from wealthy private citizen to a bag of bones in a concentration camp, surviving either on his wits or by sheer luck. One of the overall impressions I was left with was the randomness of it. Why did Vledak survive and so many millions die? Although he was undoubtedly wiley and clever, there were seemingly endless moments when it could have been him shot in the back of the head, or forced to dig his own grave, or dying from typhus, or starving to death, or suffocating in the death trains, or gassed in the showers.
The images we all carry of the Holocaust: piles of emaciated bodies bearing little resemblance to human beings, rotting, one on top of the other; blue and white striped uniforms; hollow cheeks and sunken eyes; no beauty any more, everyone rendered indistinguishable from each other by their shaven heads and desperate gaze; numbers tattooed on arms; the ghetto; hiding in coal cellars and attics; sleeping five to a bed; that little yellow star.... all of these images are in Maus. He doesn't shirk from showing them. There is a cushion from reality through the drawings, but this allows him to show it how it really was.
Maus also tackles how exactly a writer is meant to depict such atrocities. It's so far removed from our time, but it's so recent in our history. I'm not sure anyone else had ever tried to do it in comic book form before (I could very well be wrong about that) but I do know that no other comic has ever won the Pulitzer prize.
Maus, to me, is a great work of art. To be able to convey the multi-faceted impact of the Holocaust on just one family, without being mawkish, maudlin or clumsy, would have seemed to me to have been an impossible task. But it isn't. Because Spiegelman has done it.
I don't know if they teach kids today about the Holocaust. I do know that this should be required reading for all.