Maus – a survivor’s tale

Maus coverMaus is the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize. The author, Art Spiegelman, converts a series of interviews with his father about the Auschwitz experience into graphic form, interleavening them with his family’s life in America, after the war.

The central character of Maus is the narrator’s father, Vladek. Vladek is a vivid character, because he is, in a sense, a biographical depiction written by an adversarial son, and so he has deep flaws. Vladek is not a saint: he’s cruel and (embracing a Jewish stereotype which a non-Jewish author might be hesitant to explore) miserly.  He’s not a hero just because he opposes the Nazis: he’s not a hero just because he’s the main character. He is, arguably, not a hero. His second wife, for example, refuses to accept that Vladek’s personality flaws are the result of Auschwitz. Vladek himself seems to find the role of survivor, and thus wise moral shaman, fatiguing, and rejects it.

A key theme of Maus, for me at least, is the suffering of children, and their relationships with their parents. It took me more than one read to realise that the process of being interviewed, of sharing horrors with his son while abusing him for little things like letting cigarette ash fall on his carpet, is Vladek’s way of reaching out to Art, of attempting connection with him on an emotional level. The relationship of Vladek’s other son with Vladek’s first wife is even more horrible: acts of violence as acts of love being made to seem inevitable by the looming threat of the Nazis.

The great artistic conceit of Maus is that the characters are people wearing animal masks, which make them almost anonymous representatives of races. The Germans are cats, the Jews are mice. These masks become more obviously artefacts as the story progresses. This is Spiegelman’s way of criticising the style of thinking that makes all Jews the same. The thing about accepting that all Jews are not the same, though, is that it means that all the survivors are not the same. Vladek is a person, who happens to be a survivor and happens to be a Jew, and as such, his Jewishness and survivorhood don’t bind him to heroism.

Maus is a complicated book, and in some places a horrific book, as all books about the Holocaust can be, but its shock is increased by its focus on a single family’s suffering. There is an old saw that one death is a tragedy and a thousand deaths are a statistic. Reading Maus forces you to look through the obscuring fog of large numbers, down to the life on one man, who is not romanticized or exceptional.

The publisher, Random House, has a list of discussion questions for teachers, which suit book club discussions.