Of Mice and Evil Men
March 13, 2010 § 2 Comments
My 11-year old son first suggested, then recommended, then insisted firmly, that I read this book. He then left me helpful post-it reminders in various parts of the house, and when all else failed, hid the book I happened to be reading at the time, refusing to return it until I read Maus. So I did, finally, just to see what the fuss was about.
Well, as it turns out, it was certainly worth the trouble. Maus is the merger of a Holocaust tale of separated love and inhuman brutality, and an autobiographical father-son generation gap saga set in New York in the early eighties – though the latter is handled with more sensitivity and, perhaps understandably, is closer to Spiegelman‘s heart.
The characters of the stingy old Vladek, of the alternatively acquisitive and exasperated Mala, and of the tormented author himself, are not mere comic-strip caricatures, and despite being depicted as mice, they are very believable and human. In comparison, Auschwitz, with its gas chambers and fierce, feline Nazi guards, seemed flat and two-dimensional; a heaping of horror upon unspeakable horror that is too distant, in time, space and emotional context, for the readers (and for the writer himself) to grasp easily. When we read of thousands of people having to stand upright in the same locked train compartment for days on end without food or water, defecating where they stood, falling dead in droves, are these not just meaningless words to us? Can we even begin to conceive what it must have felt like to be in that situation – we, who complain of rubbing shoulders with strangers in crowded subway trains? Or is stating these things in a matter-of-fact manner the only way it can be done, because, quite simply, it is impossible to feel what the victims felt, and so there is no point in attempting to convey it? It reminds me of the emotionless recitation of a poem (“You saw nothing in Hiroshima“) right at the beginning of Alain Resnais‘ Hiroshima Mon Amour. Same war, different sides, same undescribable horror.
If the book is about Spiegelman’s attempts to get to grips with the Holocaust (and he does wrestle manfully with it), it does a good job of documenting the struggle; if the book itself is the struggle, its objective the faithful rendering of the horrors of Auschwitz, then, I’d have to say, in final analysis, that it fails. To Spiegelman’s credit, I suspect his objective is the former.
Maus was the first graphic novel I’d ever read. I used to think comic books are for kids, and that you can’t develop characters or a complex storyline using this medium. After having read Maus, I have to admit that the graphic novel is a valid art form, although I am not sure exactly where it fits. Some stories are best expressed in book form, others are only powerful as cinema, and I don’t know if the graphic novel is the ideal form for any content. Maus could just as easily have been a movie or a book, I think.
This was also the first book I’ve read that my son recommended, and hopefully the first of many – as long as recommendations are a two-way street. Perhaps I am living through an autobiographical father-son generation gap saga of my own.