Maus is a story that has long intrigued me. For years now, any bookstore that does anything at all with import would have copies of Maus proudly on display. The Nazi iconography on its cover combined with the animal characters has always been eye-catching—for better or for worse. Yet my attachment to my comfort zone always prevented me from giving it an honest chance.
Time to change that.
The central premise of Maus is that it’s both a memoir and an autobiography at once. It primarily recounts the story of a Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish Pole who experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime firsthand. He describes life in Poland before and during the war, what it took to survive, and the many atrocities he witnessed. Capped off with his recollections about his imprisonment (and eventual liberation) at Auschwitz.
At the same time, it is also the story of his son: author Art Spiegelman. That is, the real-world Art Spiegelman who really did create Maus based on the stories of his father. It is a comic book about writing the comic book that you are currently reading. This acts as a bridge between the different stories and creates some perspective by contrasting Vladek the historical figure against the man he’d become later in life. Or, at least, his son’s perceptions of him.
It’s interesting, but there is little doubt that the actual historical chapters are the main draw here. Vladek’s story is enthralling in all manner of terrible ways. There is a lot to learn about the fate of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime, but hearing about it through personal experiences is something else entirely. It gives you a view on the war that you can’t get from textbooks or Wikipedia.
What fascinated me the most is just how long Vladek carves out a living in occupied Poland. Many chapters describe the tricks he employed to elude Germany for years. His time spent in hiding together with his wife, as well as the many near misses where they were almost captured. Controversially, it also describes the treachery they endured. Countrymen who turned their back on the Jews the moment they became a risk, friends who betrayed them without a second thought. It even tells stories of how other Jews were complicit in the genocide of their own people. Traitors and cowards so desperate for special treatment that they provided the proverbial oil to keep the Nazi death machine running smoothly. Many of whom ended up dead all the same.
Vladek’s tales capture the inhumanity of the situation. The unlivable circumstances they had to tolerate for months, as well as the depravity of their fellows in the face of these trying times. That Vladek endured all that while caring for his sickly wife is nothing short of astounding. You get such an appreciation for the man and his resourcefulness; especially as he recounts these events so humbly.
My fear was that the animal characters would cheapen the significance of these events, but it really doesn’t. You get used to the look very quickly and there’s a lot to appreciate in it. First and foremost being that actually illustrating thousands of detailed, real people would’ve been a pain. The stylistic approach gives the artist leeway to depict the vast number of people involved without relying on your typical faceless crowds. It also works well to highlight individuals because the mice, cats, pigs, and everything else are such customizable templates to work from.
Spiegelman also works this aesthetic into the narrative in brilliant ways. Like when Vladek tries to pass himself off as a regular Pole, he is depicted as a mouse wearing a pig mask. His wife, however, is more “visibly Jewish”. So when she tries the same, she is depicted with an extended mouse tail swiping across the streets.
The story is tense and emotional, with a lot of educational value packed away in it. My only complaint is in regards to the meta narrative running throughout the book. Art Spiegelman’s autobiography about what it took to get Maus written in the first place. His concerns about its impact, the anxiety he experienced about the attention it drew, and his struggle to reconnect with his father.
This is initially interesting as a means to frame Vladek’s stories, but there is way too much of it. Plenty of these chapters feel low on substance, often revolving around repetitive arguments between Vladek and his dad. These arguments also give the constant impression that Art is kind of an asshole. He doesn’t like his father. He wants his stories for his comic book, but complains incessantly about having to interact with the man to get them. A man that, for his part, seems very mellowed out and loving.
Art does include a lot of segments that show off Vladek’s bad sides, but these end up feeling defensive. Like Art is making excuses for why he shouldn’t have to feel bad about neglecting his father. Yeah, Vladek is a miser, he’s eccentric, and leans on people for help a lot. He’s a prick to his second wife, who forever lives in the shadow of the woman with whom he survived the war. He has racist beliefs, sudden mood swings, and will repeat stories he’s already told a dozen times before. Traits that are certainly annoying, but in a narrative on the scope of surviving Auschwitz, it’s simply not convincing.
Readers are not suddenly going to lose sympathy for Vladek because he can be an obstinate old man. You’re so drawn into Vladek’s story that Art’s attempts at pointing out his flaws feels so… petty. In turn making chapters about his own inner turmoil feel undeserved.
And just to restate the obvious: Art Spiegelman wrote Maus. He had the freedom to present the story in whatever way he wanted and purposefully chose to make himself look this way. Like a self-important jerk that is borderline abusive to his aging father; refusing to do anything for the guy or humor any conversation outside of what he needs for his book.
I felt so fucking sad for Vladek. This old, sickly man on the last years of his life. Who went through so much, just to now get screamed at by his son for not keeping records that would’ve helped him write his book. A son that he so dearly wants to connect with, but who refuses his every kindness and badmouths him at every turn. A son that complains about how tortured he is in a book about his dad surviving the final solution.
Maybe I misconstruing Art and his relationship to his father. Maybe Vladek is worse than he seemed in the book. That’s not my fault though. That’s how Art Spiegelman wrote it.