book-reviews

Maus

by Art Spiegelman

Rating: ★★★★

Maus is Art Spiegelman's biography of his father, covering his father's old age and his memories of the Holocaust as a Jew living in Poland during World War II. Spiegelman renders the story into a graphic novel, visualising the nationalities of characters -- both contemporary and historical -- as animals: Jews as mice, Germans as Cats, Poles as pigs, in order to make clear how critical the distinct identities were to survival. The graphic novel format -- not something very familiar to me -- makes the book a light read, I easily finished it in a single sitting, making this perhaps the easiest Holocaust memoir to absorb.

Depending on the frame, the central character is either the author themselves, dealing with the habits of a crotchety, miserly and controlling aging father; or else his father. Neither are particularly sympathetic characters. While nobody would begrudge his moans about his elderly father's habits and manner, Art presents himself as shirking familial duties, reluctant to help with simple household tasks, consider care solutions or even offer common courtesies such as stopping smoking around his ailing father, focused entirely on milking the man for the story he would go on to sell. Art's father, to focus on his pre-war self, seems a shoddy and controlling treater of women who shrewdly married into money. His persecution brought out his better qualities, and his ingenuity and people-skills are as admirable as they were live-saving, but we see also afterwards the difficulty of his character, and that it is not at all to be thought a product of his suffering alone.

The lack of a sympathetic character does not harm the story, and if anything it makes the tale more real -- the mice in the book are very human and multidimensional, rather than peaceful-minded victims. Incidental characters help and hinder in equal measure, showing neither a stark tale of self-interest nor a charitable psalm of generosity. Prisoners and guards alike can be cruel and gentle and, more often than either, bribed. The storytelling manages to balance the dark with the amusing everyday, helped on the way to the upbeat by the art.

The details of the tale of Art's father in itself wash over me without much impression, inured as I am to these tales of suffering due to the unrelenting fascination of our era upon this period of history. A few rare spots struck a chord, such as the sister who poisoned herself, her children and Art's brother rather than see the German gas chambers, or his father's continued obsession with scavenging 'junk', after an experience in which exactly that skill kept him alive where others died, and the character (if not author) Art's apparent obliviousness to this connection. The most memorable line of the book, perhaps, is "Then just save the damn Special K in case Hitler ever comes back!".

An unexceptional exceptional story of survival, told in an easily absorbed and characterful manner, Maus no doubt has the power to spice up the reading of a history class, and presents an admirably complex picture of humanity in an area where the prevailing narrative suggests simplicity.