Monday, May 14, 2007

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

If you’re anything like me, the prospect of reading a comic book for its poignant and incisive political commentary is a foreign concept. But once you read Maus, you can’t help but find new respect for the medium.

Where does one start with Maus? I can identify at least four different and overlapping narratives, each one adding another layer to an already complex story. The central narrative is ostensibly that of Vladek Spiegelman, Art’s father, and his experiences as a Polish Jew leading up to the WWII, through his internment at Auschwitz, Dachau, and a number of other sites throughout Poland and Germany, until his miraculous survival. I refuse to write much about this experience, it speaks for itself. What adjectives, what words, does one use to describe such violence? I can say only that I lack confidence in my own ability to do so. And yet, if this was only a work discussing Vladek’s life pre-1945, then it would be moving, but instead, Spiegelman manages to weave other narratives that serve to demonstrate how everyone close to him has been and continues to be touched by the events of the Nazi-period.

The second narrative is the story of the relationship between Art and Vladek. This is told primarily through Art’s interviews with his father about his experiences post-1930 or so, but also comes out at a number of moments when Art and at times, his wife Francoise, come to care for Vladek. This is a brilliant exploration of the dynamics between father and son, and how their relationship has been impacted by Vladek’s traumatic history.

The next major narrative is the love story between Vladek and Anja, Art’s mother. Somehow, the two of them manage to stay alive through all the turmoil and destruction around them. They even find a way to see each other for a period in Auschwitz, no small feat under those horrible circumstances. It is their love that continues to propel Art forward in his quest to hear his father’s story, as it does for the reader. Perhaps it is the hopeless romantic in me, but the moment they are reunited after the war is exceptionally beautiful, and not because the story is organized to hedge on this drama, like most love stories- that can’t be the case, because we already know that they’ll be re-united, that’s where Art comes in after all. It is precisely the fact that it is not meant to be the story that gives it its unshakeable pull. There’s nothing special about the reunion, given the difficult circumstances of post-WWII Poland for Jews, but with their loving embrace, well, my heart beat faster. The narrative of their love is both redeeming and tragic because we already know that Anja killed herself in the U.S. twenty years later. One can’t tell what Vladek regrets the most in his later years, his wartime experiences, or Anja’s loss. Of course, they are in a sense, one and the same.

The last narrative, what I see as the meta-narrative, is the story about Art writing Maus. This comes out during his interviews for his book with Vladek, but is also made more explicit in his discussions with Francoise and his shrink, Pavel. In this storyline, Art’s insecurities about his writing ability, as well as his guilt over his parents’ experiences, is highlighted. Like the rest of Maus, the true strength of Spiegelman’s work is in the dialogue. Rarely have I seen such animated, and truly engaging representations of everyday life. Combined with his artful and inventive drawings- Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs, French are frogs, Americans are dogs, Roma are moths- the dialogue shines through, giving the story its true strength.

Because of this, the reader is not drawn into a story of good and evil, where those not involved in this violence contemporaneously can simply will it away as disembodied acts of evil done by other people. No, Spiegelman shows us the fine line between good and evil inhabits us all, while still trying to cope with the ways in which the WWII Holocaust continues to haunt those around him. In reading through Maus, we’re forced to think through our own complicity in violence, and how we each deal with guilt, regret, and most notably, love, in hard times.

It’s a treasure I’m glad to have found. I’ll never look at a graphic novel or comic book the same way again.