Print Length: 296 pages
Publisher: Penguin UK
I am so excited! In today’s post, I have pestered my best friend to send in his thoughts about a book which he recently got on his birthday. This is his take on why you should read Maus—a graphic novel by American cartoonist, Art Spiegelman. Now without any further blabbering, let’s dive in!
Trigger Warning: This post discusses holocaust and racism.
By Sayan Mukherjee
This is not exactly a review of Art Spiegelman’s Maus; it more of a push for those who have been wondering if they should pick it up. In a nutshell, Maus can be called a Holocaust story. However, there are a plethora of those, and there should be. Each of those stories gives us a window to the horrors of human cruelty, and the indestructibility of hope. But, the question remains, why Maus? Why not Schindler’s Arc, Anne Frank’s Diary or Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? To make clear, you can read all of these incredible works, but my goal is to tell you that Maus not only belongs in this list but for me, it belongs at the top of it.
No Heroes, Only Humans
The curious thing about Maus is how it’s two main characters, Art and his father Vladek, are not treated as celebrated heroes, but as exceptionally scarred humans. While Art is the child of Holocaust survivors, he needs therapy due to the constant comparisons with his brother. The latter died during the Holocaust, and Art repeatedly had to measure up to him that as he was growing up. On the other hand, Vladek has gone through the worst parts of history but survived along with his prejudices. In one section of the comics, we see Vladek visibly angry when Art and his wife give a lift to a black man, since Vladek believes all black people to be criminals. So why are these two protagonists so flawed and broken? The reason seems to be Art Spiegelman’s attempt to tell us that the Holocaust affected humans, not just the idea of goodness and innocence. It involved the poor, the wealthy, the good and the bad. As long as you were a Jew, as long as you were sentenced by the Nazi regime to be less than human, it did not matter what sort of person you were, the shadow of evil was upon you. Vladek was not a hero; neither was he a villain. He did what he had to to survive and to help his wife to do the same. The one idea that stands out clearly while reading Maus is that in the face of unprecedented wickedness and malevolence, the familiar forms of morality and logic no longer apply. The very fact that Vladek and others like him were able to hold on to any vestige of their humanity during this harrowing time is nothing short of a miracle.
Spiegelman’s art is undoubtedly one of the most significant reasons for Maus’s popularity. The black and white art, reminiscent of the works of artists such as Will Eisner and Joe Sacco, gives the book a sombre and grim ambience. However, more important, in my opinion, is how Spiegelman has the characters drawn as individual animals. Jews are portrayed as mice, and the Nazi officers and non-Jewish Germans are portrayed as cats, for obvious reasons (cats hunt and kill mice). Other nationalities also have animal representations, such as frogs for the French and dogs for Americans. However, more importantly, even after the Holocaust and the victory of the allies, even though Jews such as Art Spiegelman were born in America, Jews are still portrayed as mice. The probable reason behind this might be the idea that, no matter how much time passes, the scars of the past remain with us.
More than Just a Book
While there is certainly a lot of academic literature that we can read up on when it comes to the Holocaust, a downside there is that we tend to start looking at one of humanity’s greatest tragedies in terms of facts and figures. We know the dates, the number of people who died, the names of the concentration camps, and other trivia that can help you write a paper, or win a quiz. But Maus puts a face, and a very vulnerable one at that, atop those facts and figures. The sweeping story takes us by the hand and leads us through the early days of Nazi Germany when people still couldn’t fathom what was to come. From there to the concentration camps, to liberation, and finally to happier days, it is a story that tells us what it is to be human, and just how easily it can be lost. Maus is more than a book, it is a tale of caution, it is a father’s lament, and it is a son’s attempt to understand a burden that wasn’t his to bear.
Buy your copy – The Complete MAUS
Sayan Mukherjee is a postgraduate student from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He is interested in topics related to comic books, English literature, trauma studies and popular culture. Currently, he is pursuing PhD in English from Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Ahmadabad, India. Click here to read more of his works.
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