Book review: Maus

Only one comic book has ever won a Pulitzer prize, that being Maus – A Survivor’s Tale. It won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 for its author, Art Spiegelman. However, to call it a comic book does not do it service, as comic implies a level of humour involved. The term graphic novel would suit more, as the book is an artistic representation of the author’s father and his recounting of life as a Polish Jew in the 1930’s and his subsequent interment in Auschwitz. The story switches between the author’s father recounting the wartime and then his later life in New York.

The book is written in two volumes, with the first part called My Father Bleeds History which chronicles Vladek Speigelman’s time from the mid-1930’s to winter 1944. The second volume is called And Here My Troubles Began and describes time spent in Auschwitz and ends with the later life of the author and his father in 1970’s New York.

The story is very gripping, but what distinguishes it from our tales recounting the war years or Holocaust, is the understanding of how the situations experienced affected the person involved later in life. Vladek Spiegelman was a well-educated businessman in 1930’s Poland living in Częstochowa. He worked in the textiles and fabrics industry before he met his wife to be, Anja Zylberberg. Her family owned a factory in Sosnowiec, so they moved there after getting married in the mid 1930’s, having a young son shortly afterwards. As the Nazis decided to become aggressive, eventually invading Poland in 1939, life for Jews like Vladek and Anja became much more difficult. Eventually as the Nazis advanced, they sent their son to stay with a friend but as the Germans came to bring Jews to the gas chambers their friend decided to poison herself, her children and Vladek and Anja’s son to avoid death in the gas chambers.

The couple eventually were taken to Auschwitz in 1944 to labour in the work-camp. A strong work ethic, good contacts from his life as a businessman, and some good luck helped Vladek and Anja survive. However, 20 years after the war, Anja committed suicide, supposedly as a result of trying to deal with the effects of the war. Vladek remarried to another Auschwitz survivor called Mala. However, his life had also been changed for the worse by his time in Auschwitz, for exmaple mainfesting itself in a hate to waste food, to the point of returning half a box of cereal to the supermarket to get a return on the money paid as the cereal would not be eaten. The author himself, Art Spiegelman, has to deal with his mother’s suicide, his increasing frustration with his father’s behaviour and also his own guilt that he does not understand the Holocaust because he did not experience it (as he was born in 1948 in America after Anja and Vladek moved to New York).

One key part of the structure of the story of Maus is anthropomorphism – that is animals being represented with human characteristics such as walking on two feet, talking and using human gestures and expressions. In this book, Spiegelman used specific types of animals for different races , religions and nationalities. The main ones are listed below:

Jews as mice (regardless of nationality)

Germans/Nazis as cats (chasing mice)

Americans as dogs (chasing the cats)

British as fish (hunted in a way by cats by usually protected by the relative safety of water)

French as frogs (as a stereotype?)

Swedes as deer

Poles as pigs

Spiegelman said said that he tried to represent all people of a nationality as one kind of animal as a metaphor for the absurdity of dividing people based on these lines. In an interview with Comics Journal in 1991, he said “these metaphors… are meant to self-destruct in my book — and I think they do self-destruct.”The book is highly acclaimed and is very much worth reading. Because it blends the experiences of surviving Auschwitz with dealing with later life and the knock-on effect it really shows more than many other tales recounting Holocaust experiences. It should be recommended reading for anyone with an interest in this time in history. Praise for the book includes:

“An epic story told in tiny pictures” The New York Times

“A quiet triumph, moving and simple – impossible to describe accurately, and impossible for achieve in any medium but comics” Washington Post

“The most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” Wall Street Journal

 

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9 thoughts on “Book review: Maus

  1. Stefan says:

    The book is not new and has been discussed in academic circles for a while. I personally like it a lot, although as a Pole I don’t like Poles being depicted as pigs. By the way, my friend’s Chinese student claims that he likes this representation because in the Chinese culture pigs evoke very positive emotions. Anyway in the Euro-American culture pigs are associated with something filthy and basically bad. However I do believe the author that his intention was deconstruction of all the stereotypes, his comic book failed to reach this objective. I have no doubts about Art Spiegelman’s good will and objectivity (Vladek’s racism towards a black guy shows clearly how complex the problem is). However, even my Polish Jewish friends (I mean Polish citizens living in Poland ) admit that the stereotypes don’t care how the author understood them. They live their own lives and, despite the best intentions, Maus reinforced them.
    Anyway, I do recommend Art Spiegelman’s comic books. They are worth reading and discussing!

  2. scatts says:

    Coincidentally, I recently watched a Sky Arts documentary about the guy. Seemed like a genuine sort of chap.

    I’d be interested to read praise from European, especially Polish or German, sources rather than the usual sycophantic drivel poured out by the yanks for their own adopted talent.

  3. Stefan says:

    Scatts, it isn’t hard to find German sources praising Art Spiegelman’s Maus (http://www.comic-sammlung.info/comic-serien/comic-serie/2663/).

    The Polish sources also can be found: http://www.culture.pl/pl/culture/artykuly/dz_sasnal_maus

  4. kukul says:

    I find it surprising that you reviewed this graphic novel on a website devoted specifically to Poland without mentioning the multiple examples of Spiegelman’s anti-polonism. The books are ridden with them and depicting Poles as the most contempt-worthy animals in both Polish and Jewish culture is just a cherry on top.
    You might disagree, but it’s strange that you omitted the issue.

  5. VLF says:

    Pigs… of course, what else!
    Interesting also that the Americans are the dogs “chasing the cats”. And no mention about the Russians.
    After all, as we all know, it was America who won the WWII.
    There are 17456.3 hours of Hollywood movies to prove it.
    Another interesting thing for me is how over the years the word Germans is being replaced by Nazis. And to a certain extent fair enough, not all Germans were Nazis, everyone knows that most Germans during the war were cooks and store-men.
    And yet Polish are in history described as Polish – all pigs.

  6. Decoy says:

    kukul,

    I’ll admit that reading Maus was the first I’ve read/seen of Speigelman’s work. Omitting the issue, as you say, is based simply on the fact I am not familiar with any of his work, and while he did portray Poles as pigs, I didn’t feel the anti-polonism in it.

    I’ll have a look for some of his other work to see if the anti-polonism applies.

  7. The Nazis depicted Jews as rats and Poles as pigs.

    Spiegelman depicted Jews as cute little mice and Poles as none too cute pigs.

    Some things change, some don’t.

    I don’t think he was writing/drawing for a Chinese audience.

  8. supertroll says:

    I have no problems with being depicted as a pig. I LOVE PORK!

  9. jolanta says:

    jews are butt-hurt cause poles cared for their own survival first and didn’t sacrifice their lives to save mr. factory owner.

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