The Complete Maus
by Art Spiegelman
I’m not sure what this says about my state of mind, but for some reason the celebrations surrounding the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last weekend made me pick up this book that famously covers some of the worst stories of the Holocaust. It’s a deeply upsetting book that I had to take breaks from to recover emotionally.
Art Spiegelman’s celebrated graphic novel alternates between telling the story of his father Vladek – a Polish Jew – from the 1930s to the late 1940s, and the story of Art’s own relationship with his father in the 1980s. It’s darkly sad and darkly funny. Oh – and all the people have animal heads. Jewish people are mice, Polish people are pigs, Germans are cats (later on, Americans are dogs and the French are frogs). It’s odd and it isn’t really ever explained, but the insinuations are clear.
Art and Vladek have a fractious relationship. Vladek is happy to tell his son details of his war-time experiences, but he also needs someone to vent to about getting old, about arguments with his second wife Mala. It’s uncomfortable to read at times.
Vladek narrates his history in broken English. And it’s a tough story, even in Holocaust terms. Vladek and his first wife (Art’s mother) Anja lived in south-west Poland, near Krakow. They went from owning a large successful business, to having their home and factories confiscated, to being moved to a series of ghettos and then work camps. Vladek was initially held as a political prisoner but was released back to the ghetto, primarily because political prisoners enjoyed some level of international protection.