I must have purchased The Complete Maus over ten years ago with the intention of soon reading it. It would have been around the time I was teaching another book about the Holocaust, Mark Raphael Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, which was an assigned text for senior students studying English for the Higher School Certificate in New South Wales. Somehow, since then, Spiegelman’s book has languished on my shelf, unread. I’ve often thought to read it, but I acknowledge that my preference against graphic novels has been a factor in my delay.
Anyone who reads this review when I first post it will likely know – but it is good to remind others who may read it in the future – that The Complete Maus was banned by the Tennessee School Board last month. There has also been a neo-Nazi rally in Orlando in which people were abused and even attacked, as well as a Neo-Nazi gathering in Boston. The rationale given by the school board for the banning was that Maus contained eight ‘curse’ words (a strange expression to Australian ears – we tend to say ‘swear’ which doesn’t have the same moralistic religious tone) and a depiction of a nude woman, the author’s mother, when she suicided in 1968. The board also cited the book's serious themes. I was aware of these objections as I started Maus. I have to admit, I forgot about the swearing, which doesn’t bother me, and even though I looked for the depiction of nudity as I read, I missed it. I had to go back and carefully look for it. An internet search helped me narrow down the page. Here is the picture in question, on the left, and on the page it appears, right, for context.
The image is so innocuous (as nudity goes) that it is hard for me to draw any other conclusion except that the board’s reasoning was a pretext. America seems mired in intractable culture wars about critical race theory which tries to address and understand structural racism, and LGBTQ issues. If only young people were exposed to more books like Maus, which encourage empathy and an understanding of history, these problems might in some small way be alleviated in the long term.
Obviously, the news from Tennessee and Orlando was what prompted me to finally read Maus. Ironically, and as seems usual in the history of banning books, Maus became a best-seller this week on Amazon (at number 1). I also read a story about a Californian man offering to send copies of Maus to Tennessee school children. My own small contribution is to get the cover on our website, and talk a little bit about the book. This is the context which has led to this being a slightly different style of review.
Maus was originally published as a serial in Raw magazine from 1980 to 1991. Raw was a comics and graphics magazine published by Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise. The book, as it now exists, comprises two publications taken from that serialisation. The first part was published in 1986 under the title Maus: A Survivor's Tale and subtitled My Father Bleeds History. The second part was published in 1992 under the title And Here My Troubles Began. What is now The Complete Maus – the book I read – was first published in 1996. The book won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and has won a bunch of other awards throughout its history. When the book was published in Germany it was given special dispensation to allow the swastika to remain on its cover – Germany had introduced laws restricting the use of Nazi iconography – since the book was a considered a serious treatment of the subject of the Holocaust.
Even so, the Tennessee School Board banned it.
The first part chronicles the experiences of Art’s father, Vladek, who has survived the Holocaust. A little like Mark Raphael Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, the narrative switches between two primary timelines to tell the story of Art’s attempts to connect with his father in the 1980s, and the story that Vladek tells his son of his experiences in the Holocaust. Vladek’s story incorporates the difficulties he has in his current relationship with Mala, his second wife. Anja, Art’s mother, suicided in 1968 and Art has since sought help to deal with the trauma. Vladek distrusts Mala. He becomes paranoid that she is only after his money. This becomes a major issue in the book, and at one point Art laments that his father is the stereotypical Jew who obsesses about money. Still, he wishes to present the truth as accurately as he can. Vladek’s narrative covers the birth of their son, Richieu, Anje’s postpartum depression, the increasing oppression by the Nazis, and Vladek’s conscription into the army and capture after a battle. This first section also chronicles how the family is split when Vladek and Anje decide to send Richieu to live with an aunt for his safety. Ironically, he is poisoned by her to prevent him and her children from being taken by the Nazis as news of the incarceration of Jews in concentration camps filters through the community.
There is no doubt that the book deals with some grim themes, and they get grimmer in the second half. Part two of Maus chronicles Art’s efforts to wheedle his father’s story from him. Vladek becomes more difficult after Mala leaves him, and he increasingly has to deal with the issues of his age and loneliness. The story he tells to Art is primarily about Auschwitz, where he and Anje are sent after their capture near the end of the first part of Maus. The story Vladek tells is familiar from other books devoted to the subject (Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man covers similar experiences and is highly recommended). Vladek speaks of hunger, beatings, terrible cruelty, dehumanisation, debilitating work, the depressing reality of a seemingly inevitable death and the desperate attempts to somehow live without the basic necessities, like suitable clothing for the cold, or enough food, and the interminable marches in the cold or weeklong incarcerations in train carriages with people dying in the dark at the end of the war. This is all serious stuff for school students, it is true. Despite Spiegelman’s basic line drawings, the hanging of four Jews for dealing goods without coupons is quite shocking, visually. But the history of the Holocaust is important to understand, and this book is an accessible introduction to it, apart from being a personal family story. Not only is the treatment of Jews chronicled, but the pictures and story reveal much about the workings of the camps – the different grades of prisoner and types work, the selections and inevitably, the executions and ovens. But against this is also a story of various kindnesses, whether they be for gain or altruism: of people willing to hide Vladek and his friends, to sneak food, convey messages – Vladek is kept at Auschwitz, Anje at the nearby Birkenau – or offer lifesaving advice. This is the point of the opening of the book, when Art goes to his father as a child to tell him his friends skated away when he fell over. “If you lock them together in a room for a week,” Vladek tells the young Art, “then you could see what it is, friends!...”
Spiegelman’s treatment of his subject – his decision to also tell the story of researching the book and producing it – helps maintain the relevance of history and the personal impacts of the Holocaust. Vladek is obviously a difficult man, and his attempts to have Art and Françoise stay with him for an extended period after Mala leaves him reveal the tensions in the family that arise from Vladek’s personality ticks, which are evident results of trauma: he is unwilling to spend money or waste any food whatsoever; he collects bits of rubbish he thinks might be useful; he has kept a trove of unneeded documents for years, but he has destroyed his wife’s diaries which chronicle her experiences in the war; he is sometimes abrasive. Art, himself, seeks psychological counsel and feels haunted by his dead brother, Richieu, who remains a perfect son, while Art must grow with all the imperfections of any boy. And by the second half of the book, Art chronicles his difficulties in continuing the story after the success of the first part of Maus, as well as his resistance to cynical attempts by others to commercialise the story for profit: not a movie deal, not merchandise.
Of course, something also needs to be said about Spiegelman’s artwork. Most obvious is the connection between the title – Maus – and Spiegelman’s decision to represent Jews as Mice. This is not merely the affectation of a children’s book. In fact, Spiegelman foregrounds the use of animal avatars several times throughout the story. Art’s wife, Françoise, is French but is nevertheless represented as a mouse. She has converted to Judaism to please Vladek. Art jokingly tells her that when he draws the next part of his book he can represent her transforming from a frog into “beautiful mouse”, in an attempt to suggest a fairytale perfection for their relationship. Françoise’s angry rejoinder is that Art should have married a Jewish girl, “Then you could just draw mice no problem.” When a reporter asks Art what kind of animal he would draw for Israeli Jews, Art replies “I have no idea … porcupines?” When Vladek discovers a dead informer he says he is “the rat that turned my family over to the Gestapo.” Spiegelman therefore wants the reader to consider his artifice and not take it literally, which would elide the seriousness of his topic. Anje, for instance, is terrified of rats and mice (of a normal mouse size) in a cellar where she hides. And when Art visits his psychologist, Pavel, they wear mouse masks, the back of their heads clearly showing their human beneath, suggesting that their discussion is on some level abstracting the lived realities of the rest of the story. And this is not the only instance of mask-wearing in the book. Mice, the Jews, are diminutive and vulnerable. The Nazis are cats and therefore threatening to mice. The Poles are pigs. Americans are dogs and the French are frogs. So, when Jews attempt to disguise themselves to avoid detection, Spiegelman merely has them wear a mask – of a pig, for instance – and we understand what they are doing. Clearly, the use of animal avatars are metaphors for power relationships, and the wearing of their masks represents deception or abstract thought. But the art is also a reminder that racist ideology espoused by groups like the Nazis is dehumanising, not just for those who suffer it, but for those who deal it out.
Spiegelman seems to enjoy playing with the slipperiness of language, also. The first chapter of Part Two of the book is title ‘Mauschwitz’, not Auschwitz. The Gestapo’s command “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out!) phonetically recalls the title. Chapter titles ‘Mouse Holes’ and ‘Mouse Trap’ refer to the hiding places of the Jews and their capture. And ‘maus’ also recalls the German verb ‘mauscheln’, meaning to speak like a Jew. Spiegelman’s metaphor is not only a visual metaphor, but incorporates linguistic play.
There is a discussion in the second part of the book between Art and his psychologist, Pavel, about attitudes to the Holocaust and writings about it. The question is raised several times in the narrative about the submission of the Jews – why they mostly succumbed – and the reality of their situation. Art understands that his father’s survival was in large part due to him being “amazingly present-minded and resourceful”. Pavel points out that “it wasn’t the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM!” This reminds us about the vagaries of living. That we are all subject to wider forces we cannot control.
From this, the question arises about the efficacy of writing about the Holocaust, especially since there are so many accounts already. Art recalls that Samuel Beckett said, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” But on reflection, he adds, “On the other hand, he SAID it.” As Pavel points out, only the survivors can tell the story, however imperfectly. Vladek is an imperfect conduit for the past, especially since he has obliterated the story of his dead wife, and his narrative is often evasive or disorganised. But Art also tells his own story when he attempts to make sense of his family’s history. And Vladek’s story isn’t just his own, it is a chapter about a terrible moment in history. And that seems to me part of the point. That our own personal stories do not always belong only to ourselves, alone; it is important to tell stories to the future, even if others have also told them. To silence those stories seems, to me, short sighted. That people are unwilling to accept the banning of a book like Maus is in some way hopeful.