Title: The Complete Maus
Author: Art Spiegelman
Published: 1986/1991 Pages: 295
Genre: Graphic Novel/Memoir
This is the type of book that I hate writing about—the one that I loved so much that I simply can’t do it justice or organize my thoughts in a coherent manor. So, here we go:
Go read it. The End.
Ok, I guess I’ll go into a little more detail. I’ll be honest, I was pretty resistant towards this book. I had some prejudices that were holding me back a little bit. What prejudices? Well, mostly the talking animals. I know, it’s weird, but talking animals are sometimes a turn-off for me. It almost seemed childish that the author would choose to portray the Holocaust using mice and cats and Jews and Nazis—part of me even though this was a children’s literature book. But I’m glad I finally read enough reviews to convince me to get this book. I waited patiently until my 40% coupon for Borders arrived so I could rush off and buy a shiny new hardcover edition—the complete edition.
The Complete Maus is a combination of biography and memoir—the story Art Spiegelman’s father's survival of the Holocaust, particularly his imprisonment in Auschwitz, and Spiegelman's own experiences with his father as he works on the book. I loved both parts of the book equally, but the dynamics between Arty and his father, Vladek, created such an intimate texture to the story. I can't say I particularly cared for either Arty or Vladek as characters--Spiegelman often shows them with all their faults in plain view--but the creation of Maus gives the two common ground and helps each other understand one another better.
Spiegelman's father's story provides the meat of the book. It begins during Vladek's youth and his increasing success in both his personal and business life. He marries into a wealthy family of Polish Jews and quickly rises in his various occupations. This all quickly halts, however, when the Nazis begin imposing laws and regulations aimed at denigrating the Jews. Vladek and his wife, Anja, are successful in keeping from imprisonment for a long time due to Vladek's industrious nature and the strong ties they have to wealthy Jews, but eventually they are forced to enter Auschwitz along with hundreds of thousands other Jews.
Like any other book about the Holocaust, Maus is incredibly heartwrenching and oftentimes unbelievable. I was constantly angered and sicked by the crimes committed and the atrocities millions had to endure. What makes this book especially poignant is its illustrated form. I can't imagine a more effective way for Spiegelman to share his father's experiences. I'm constantly amazed at what authors can accomplish in the illustrated form--the emotions the drawings can portray, the multi-layered dimensions of the story, the action, the misery, the joy, the love. There is a lot to be said about words, and I am a lover of words, but the drawings in this book continually speak for themselves--conveying things that words simply cannot accomplish.
As I mentioned above, I have a weird thing about talking animals, but I love how Spiegelman chose to portray the different races in the book--mice for Jews, cats for Germans, pigs for Poles, so and and so on. I don't know for sure what Spiegelman's intentions were with these depictions, but on the one hand I saw the stereotypical cat chasing mouse theme, but on the other--and more importantly, it showed the ridiculousness of distinguishing between different races. I don't think I'm making sense with that thought, but it's there in my head.
This review is already far longer than I wanted it to be and I still feel like I haven't said anything at all. We've all read Holocaust stories before. We know the history and we know what happens. But this is different than anything I've ever encountered before and I can't recommend it enough. I couldn't be more glad that I put my prejudices aside and read this book. Although I'm haunted by what I read and saw in this book (what was I thinking children's lit??), I am grateful that Spiegelman was persistent enough to get his poor stubborn father's story to share with us all. It is not one that should be overlooked or forgotten. None of them are.