Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Complete Maus- A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

The professor of my Language and Literature course had mentioned this one amongst her many references while teaching. The knowledge that we hadn’t read this graphic novel was immediately followed by a rebuke, and so I decided to read it. This was my first foray into the enormous world of graphic novels, and there’s nothing surprising in this book winning the Pulitzer Prize (being the only graphic novel with this distinction).
No suspense here: Maus (German for, well, ‘mouse’) is, as it says in the subtitle, is a Survivor’s Tale.  There’s nothing left to spoil. A ‘survivor’ in a story set in Nazi Germany can mean only one thing. There’s some good news in this. Written by Art Spiegelman, this is a story in two volumes of him interviewing his father, a Polish Jew, about his experiences during the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.
The plot here isn’t really the element that gives this book such significance. Of course, the experiences of a survivor of the Holocaust are pretty gripping on their own, but here, the narration takes over the actual story. This is a not just a survivor’s tale, but also one executed in the form of a graphic novel, a second-hand history and a highly self-referential story. However, I am not pointing it out as being unique as the only postmodernist work about the Holocaust and nor the most famous. There have also been some other famous non-conventional narratives: Anne Frank’s epistolary, for example.

One of the more offbeat features of the novel is the not-so-subtle metaphors used throughout the story. The Jews are all depicted as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs and the Americans as dogs – quite a good review of racist stereotypes. This is no Animal Farm, though, as the animals are anthropomorphized, with the metaphor itself breaking down in many places throughout the novel. Mice-characters shown to be scared of mice; the author persona shown to be unsure about assigning animals to some characters; at the psychiatrist’s office there’re just mouse masks. Still, bringing in these traditionally ‘funny’ representations for such a grave plot is not only ironic in itself but also in the fact that it serves to humanize the characters in a way. You see the characters for who they are – their behavior, their ideas, their experiences, their horrors – instead of what they look like, but the racial tensions are still seen through.

Another way of humanization here is that the holocaust survivor – Art’s father – is not shown as an idealistic hero like survivors are often depicted, but as just another person, with his qualities and flaws on full display. The same happens with Art’s character himself, as he goes through his own struggles of dealing with a stubborn and miserly father, living up to his inner struggle as his parents’ ‘other’ son, and his post-war privilege, among other things. History, memory and the presence of the memory of the Holocaust story only as a second-person narrative serve as other major themes, especially in the second volume of the novel.
I don’t have much to say about the illustration, for this is the first graphic novel I’ve read, but I found this particular panel very, very outstanding: 
Overall, I would recommend this book being read as more as a personal memoir (on two levels) than just as a survivor’s tale. If you like historical novels (especially ones set in the World War Era), this is a must-read. A third-hand glance into the horrors of the Holocaust, and a first-hand glance into alternative methods of narrative are some of the things that this book provides, along with an honest portrayal of a person’s journey and experience through those times.      

Contributed by Mihir Bhosale.