Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991) 296 p.

Alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most renowned graphic novels of all time, and one of the first examples usually cited when people say the genre is capable of being Real Literature. Subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” Maus is a true account of Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a Polish Jew sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The book’s only unrealistic quirk is to portray the various races and nationalities as animals – Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs and so on.

Given the amount of acclaim the book has receieved – it won the Pulitzer Prize, the only comic book ever to have done so – I knew I’d read it eventually, but was reluctant to do so. The reason for this is because I’m sort of burned out on the Holocaust. I know it was a terrible, awful thing, and that we must never forget it, but I’m at a point in my life where I’m not really interested in hearing any more about it.

I found Maus to be an excellent book nonetheless, not because of how it deals with the Holocaust, or even because I like graphic novels, but rather because of the way Spiegelman chose to present the story. It is not a simple, straightforward account of his father’s experience. Rather, it’s presented as a meta-narrative, with a mouse-version of the author visiting his father in Queens, interviewing him about his experiences. It also deals with the results of the book’s success, since it was originally serialised – in the second half we see a world-weary Spiegelman sitting at his drawing board, which is teetering atop a pile of Jewish corpses.

The most important effect of this story-within-a-story is that we see Spiegelman’s father from his own eyes, presented as the man he truly is. And that man is, despite being a Holocaust survivor, an asshole. He treats his wife like a slave, rarely gives his son any respect or recognition, is an almost perfect caricature of a stingy Jew, and – ironically – is racist towards blacks. Spiegelman clearly has little patience with him, finds him difficult to deal with, and tries to avoid spending time with him apart from interviewing him for the book. He feels guilty about it, and guilty about having an easy life after what his parents went through, but none of that guilt is enough to cancel out the generally negative feelings he has towards his father.

This is the crux of the book – a Holocaust survivor’s story does not end with liberation by American troops. It’s something they carry with them for the rest of their lives, and something that goes on to affect everyone around them. Some of Vladek Spiegelman’s flaws are doubtless a result of his time in the camps – his stinginess, for example, and his obsession with never letting food go to waste, stem from a time when he had to fight for every tiny thing he had. At one point he draws his son a diagram of the hiding place they constructed in Poland in the early years of the war, saying “It’s good to know exacty how was it… just in case.” His son seems to take this as being for the comic, but I got the heartbreaking impression that perhaps, in the back of his mind, Vladek never felt wholly safe again after the war.

But other flaws of Vladek’s are certainly just a part of his nature, and serve as an example that just as not all Germans were bad, not all Holocaust victims were good, either. “It wasn’t the best who survived, nor did the best ones dies,” Spiegelman’s shrink (a fellow Holocaust survivor) tells him. “It was random!” At another point, a reporter asks Spiegelman to “tell our viewers what message you want them to get from your book?” Spiegelman replies, “A message? I dunno… I never thought of trying to reduce it to a message. I mean, I wasn’t trying to convince anybody of anything.”

The scenes in Maus between Spiegelman and his father were, for my money, the best parts of the book. The Holocaust scenes mostly failed to move me, as most Holocaust scenes do. I think I’ve been desensitised. Is it perhaps wise to tell young children about it? I recall it being part of the curriculum in primary school. They showed us photos of mass graves and everything. I don’t think it’s too intense for young minds to handle – quite the opposite, in fact. I couldn’t quite grasp the seriousness of it at that age, and then it’s part of so many books and films that you just sort of grow up with it, and now I’m 23 years old and perfectly aware of what happened… and yet it’s such an immoveable fixture of the 20th century, such a solid part of history, that it fails to move me to the extent it should. I don’t believe that I’ve ever sat down and thought about it and been horrified that it happened – and I don’t believe I’m capable of doing so, either. (What does disturb me is something that only occurred to me recently, while I was actually in Germany, or perhaps when I watched “The Reader” – the fact that a whole nation willingly and consciously allowed it to happen.)

This feeling is also touched upon in Maus, actually. Spiegelman’s shrink says “Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed… maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust.”

Spiegelman, when writing Maus, didn’t just set out to re-tell his father’s story. Doing so was irrevocably wound up with the story about his own relationship with his father. Maus is largely a book about the Holocaust, but it’s also a story about living with a difficult father, about being greatly impacted by something one never experienced, about guilt and anger and love and how they can mix up with each other. Maus is a much, much stronger book than it would have been if Spiegelman had made it purely about his father’s experiences – but then, I doubt that was even an option.

I’m not going to compare it to Watchmen, because I’ve never seen a clearer example of apples and oranges. But suffice to say that, like Watchmen Maus is absolute proof that comics can be great literature.