Yesterday I finished Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman. This two-part graphic novel mostly tells the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, who along with his wife survived Auschwitz through both guile and luck — probably more luck than guile. The book is also the story of Spiegelman’s attempts to come to know his father, a seemingly bitter man who despite great business success has become so miserly that he will actually attempt to return partially-eaten groceries to the store for credit. Spiegelman seems to be trying to come to terms with his mother’s suicide some years before, although this is never stated outright.
What makes the book so interesting is its metaphoric construction. Jews are not depicted as people, but as mice (hence the name, Maus). The Germans are portrayed as cats, the French as frogs, and so on — the effect being a sort of Animal Farm construction, as well as a commentary on how so often people only seem to fill in “roles” rather than live distinct lives of their own. In several parts of the book, instead of actually showing the people of his book as mice, for example, he instead depicts them as humans wearing mouse masks — suggesting not only the continuation of past antagonisms into the present, but also reinforcing the idea that so much human suffering is a result of a failure to look beneath our real masks and glimpse what lies beneath. It is worth noting that Vladek Spiegelman’s bitterness, born in the depths of the worst of human atrocity, is passed on to a son who has grown up privileged and healthy in America. And yet the subtext is woven throughout the book, because of Anja Spiegelman’s suicide, that great pain always exists beneath the outward calm of our lives. The overriding emotions of the book are fear and anger, with sadness only placing third, and the book’s most angry moment comes not in one of the concentration camps but in the present, when Art learns that Vladek has long since destroyed his mother’s diaries. “Goddamn you!” Spiegelman cries, and then he calls his father a murderer — because what he has done is to kill the memories that his mother left behind.
Unlike, say, Schindler’s List, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale does not end on a hopeful note. It does not reassure us that heroism is possible even in times of greatest darkness, nor does it reaffirm that life goes on — unless it concedes the point through its main message, that pain endures. Toward the end of the book, Vladek reacts with unbelievable anger because Art’s girlfriend, Francoise, picks up a black hitch-hiker. Francoise is incensed, wondering how someone who has been through the horror of the Holocaust can still be a racist. Vladek fires back, “Do not even compare the blacks to the Jews.” The point is not belabored, nor is it expanded. Spiegelman is not endorsing his father’s disappointing racism, nor is he rejecting it; he only reports it, matter-of-factly, as if to say, “This is the world we have created.” And the book does not end with any sense of closure or understanding; it simply ends. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I would call “haunting”, but that seems the best descriptor for this one.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Art Spiegelman is currently a features editor for The New Yorker, and frequently produces covers for that magazine.