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Rarely does a graphic artist manage to evoke in you a sense of realism. Most comic art lets you escape into a universe richly realized by its creator, with its own rules or lack thereof, qualities that its characters are vividly endowed with, and circumstances that get you involved, like a silent spectator actually living and breathing in the same world as the characters. But Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ portrays a world that is nothing short of a nightmare that has become indelibly stamped as a black mark in the book of human history. It is a world you cringe even to observe, and even when you do not share any commonality with the events portrayed, you feel the sense of horror and sorrow and also the inner strength of the people who have come through the Holocaust and have made up their lives anew across the world, spawning successful generations who have made their own mark.
Art Spiegelman is one such successful descendant, having made his name as a post-modernist graphical artist, editor, and also a storyteller nonpareil. In ‘Maus’, his bestselling Pulitzer prize-winning 1991 comic novel, he narrates the trials and tribulations of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew from the town of Częstochowa, who moves to Sosnowiec in 1937 to take up a textile business set up for him by his father-in-law, after marrying Anja, a girl he spots by chance and falls in love with while visiting his own relatives. After the birth of their first son, Richieu, Anja, always fragile, suffers from post-partum depression and Vladek takes her to a beautiful sanitarium in Czechoslovakia. After they return, they are caught up in the anti-Semitic wave riding Poland, and Vladek is drafted in the Polish army to fight the Nazis. He is captured and becomes a prisoner of war for a time, until he is sent back, but not to Sosnowiec, as it has now become part of the Reich. Instead he is dropped off along with other prisoners of war at Lublin, part of the Polish Protectorate, though still ruled by Germany. Vladek sneaks back into Sosnowiec to be reunited with his family.
After reuniting with his family and his in-laws and managing to stay together in as normal a way as possible in a small house in the Sosnowiec Ghetto, the German Army commands the Ghetto’s Jews to move to Srodula, after which the men are marched back to Sosnowiec to work as labourers. As rumours of the deadly gas chambers increase by the day, Vladek reluctantly lets his son Richieu go with his sister-in-law to Zawiercie. Tragically, the Nazis start rounding up the Jews in Zawiercie to send to the concentration camps in Auschwitz, and Vladek’s sister-in-law Tosha, rather than submit herself and the children under her care to German atrocities, poisons herself and the children, and Vladek and his wife are heartbroken when they search for their child across orphanages after the war and find no trace whatsoever of him and accept that he did not survive the war.
In Srodula, Vladek and Anja and her relatives hide in bunkers prepared by sympathetic Jews, until they are discovered. The older family members are taken away to the gas chambers, while Vladek and Anja hide in another bunker with a group of Jews. The group splits up after the Germans depart Srodula. Under cover of night, Vladek and Anja return to Sosnowiech, where they seek refuge and Vladek scours the black markets for food he can buy with money and valuables that he saves up carefully and uses wisely to keep himself and his wife provided for during this period. He makes friends with a Polish woman named Mrs. Motonowa, who sells food in these black markets, and has a regular patron in Vladek. She agrees to let him and his wife stay in her house with her and her young son except for ten days every three months, when her husband, an engineer with the German railways, comes home for a vacation. During this time, Vladek and Anja are asked to hide themselves in the cellar and not come out, as Mrs. Motonowa’s husband is very suspicious.
Through another Polish acquaintance, Vladek meets old friends, the Mandelbaums, who are currently negotiating with shady characters who promise them safe passage to Hungary, which is then relatively unaffected by this turmoil plaguing Poland. Mr. Mandelbaum’s nephew Abraham, offers to go first, and write to his uncle once he has safely reached Hungary, about whether it is safe for them to follow suit. After anxiously waiting to hear from him for some time, a letter comes from Abraham, declaring that Hungary is peaceful and that he is able to lead a normal life there and that the Mandelbaums and the Spiegelmans should follow suit. Anja is very wary and unwilling to undertake this risk and begs Vladek to consider continuing their undisturbed life with Mrs. Motonowa, but Vladek is determined to give his family a free life instead of living in hiding or incognito, and decides to take the chance and pays for safe passage to Hungary. However, the Spiegelmans and Mandelbaums are betrayed by the Polish crooks and find themselves arrested by the Gestapo on the train, and are sent directly to Auschwitz. Art, who is desperate to know his mother’s own experiences at Auschwitz, is mortified to hear that Vladek has destroyed her diaries after a particularly bad day, and also to lessen the pain of his memories of her, which still haunt him. After knowing this terrible truth, Art can no longer stand his father’s presence, and leaves him, calling him a ‘murderer’.
‘Maus’ is only the first of a two-part saga, the second one dealing with Art’s life in Rego Park, New York, where his family has newly settled in, and his troubled relationship with his father, who has become rather stingy and eccentric, and the continuation of Vladek’s macabre tale post his and Anja’s separation at the concentration camp in Auschwitz. I’ve only just started reading this second book, and I look forward to exploring this Byzantine story further.
‘Maus’ is an achievement on many levels; at once a biography, a documentary, a novel, a post-modern masterpiece of pictorial literature…it subsumes genres. It is a portrait of a man who holds himself steady in incredibly trying circumstances, who is at once a hero and a nag in the eyes of his son, who protects and takes care of his wife throughout their miserable times during World War 2 and its aftermath but comes across as aloof and cold and more interested in objects than in people during his present day condition as a rich but miserly, convalescing multiple heart attack survivor, who has also survived the suicide of his wife and the estrangement of his son; it is also a forceful and stark depiction of the human condition. As Vladek says to Art at the beginning, when a young Art complains to him about his friends deserting him, “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”
Though Spiegelman initially found the raw reality of his father’s tale and his portraying his own suffering at his mother’s suicide too harrowing and intense for depiction in comic form, he took an anthropomorphic approach and added a layer of abstraction to his story by showing the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Poles as pigs, and other animals that represent other races. Here, especially in his portrayal of the Jews as mice, he was playing along with the Nazi depiction of Jews as vermin. Ultimately, the characters are no more animals than you or I, but are simply distinct identities in a human mass.
‘Maus’ is a tribute to powerful memories that live through generations, and like terrifying urban legends passed on through oral tradition, continues to make us viscerally relive experiences that we wouldn’t wish upon our enemies. In realizing this profound work in such a unique and genre-defying form, Art Spiegelman has indeed created an original and enduring work of art.