I’ve been wanting to read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale ever since the first graphic novel was published. These books are so popular that, almost as soon as my public library would obtain a copy, they would be borrowed and not returned. As a result, I could only keep requesting them, placing them on hold hoping I would get my hands on them before anyone else could. And finally, the library sent me a notice saying that they were available for pick-up.
The timing is emotionally charged. Things in the Gaza Strip have been distressing to anyone paying attention. I’ve consciously chosen to say nothing about it, not sharing anything on google+ or twitter because the topic is too large for me to touch. Which is why I am in awe of anyone who can write about the Shoah. After reading these books, I am not surprised that the author/artist won a Pulitzer Prize.
The first book, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History begins with Art Spiegelman as a child, being bullied then comforted by his father. Speigelman’s drawings are highly stylized. Simple black and white, with a raw energy in the lines. He makes himself and his family rodents, specifically mice. This choice becomes a metaphor for the rest of the story, with Nazis drawn as cats and Polish citizens as pigs. Rather, stories, because there are two stories told on the page. First, there is the frame story in which the author goes to his father wanting to know about what happened to their family during World War II. The second story is, of course, the father’s narrative about his surviving the war. The first book ends where the reader knows it is inevitably heading: with Spiegelman’s parents arriving at a concentration camp.
As if the remarkable story of how the author’s father managed to keep himself and wife one step ahead of the Germans weren’t compelling enough, the complicated story the man has with his father is revealed. The sympathetic prologue to the graphic novel sets things up beautifully, setting up a time when a boy admired his father. But now, the man can see his father’s flaws and struggles with them even as he wants to know as much as he can. The first book ends with an explosive and painful revelation.
Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began picks up sometime after the first volume was published. Spiegelman is struggling with his own version of guilt, trying to get his father’s story on the page but knowing that some of what he is revealing makes his father a cliché. The conflict between father and son grows even as the crisis of the past progresses. His father and mother are separated but his father manages to maneuver things to his personal benefit as best he can under extreme circumstances.
It is impossible to praise this pair of graphic novels enough, especially because Spiegelman is ruthlessly candid about his own ambivalent feelings. Family secrets are revealed and nobody comes through this story unscathed, unrevealed. Everyone is flawed and, in fact, everyone carries scars of the Holocaust, including the author himself. I could not put these books down and am only sorry it took me so long to get around to reading them.