Updated on May 24, 2015
6. ‘Maus’ by Art Speigelman
The story of a Jewish Auschwitz-survivor in the form of comic strips, featuring anthropomorphised animals. You might not think this is the stuff of a Pulitzer Prize winner, but that’s exactly what Maus is and it’s an absolute triumph.
Artist Art Speigelman decided to use this unusual method to tell his father’s story of survival throughout the Second World War: living in ghettos, evading capture by the Nazis, and his eventual internment in (and escape from) Auschwitz. In the book, the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are cats, with other nationalities putting in appearances as other animals (eg: Polish pigs, American dogs, French frogs).
The comic depicts Spiegelman (as a mouse) going round to his father Vladek’s house and taping their conversations about the war. As Vladek talks, the drawings take the reader into his story, always accompanied by his broken English narration. That was one of my favourite aspects of the story: that Spiegelman doesn’t edit his father but leaves in the lovely idiosyncrasies of his language, so you really feel like you are hearing the man’s voice.
Occasionally the ‘present day’ scenes lapse into self-reference, with panels showing Spiegelman talking with his wife about the project he has taken on, and how he should represent her in the comic. It’s charming and also helps to ground the story in reality, to really remind the reader that this is not fiction.
The contrast between the animal cartoon characters and the brutal facts of the war is striking. In many ways, I think Spiegelman’s choice to use animals makes the story easier to stomach – readers can look at emaciated and tortured mice more comfortably than emaciated and tortured humans – without compromising the message. It does create a strange atmosphere: there’s the constant feeling that you’re reading a children’s story, but the subject matter is often deeply disturbing.
Spiegelman’s own voice is also vastly important to the story. We get to hear his true opinions about his father, the alienation he feels as someone raised with knowledge but no experience of concentration camps. He suffers from the family fall-out of the war, without ever being able to claim that he was there. There is also an incredibly moving section about Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide: Speigelman doesn’t hold back any of his emotions, particularly his anger towards his father. Maus was published in 1991, about 9 years after the real Vladek died, but I do wonder whether he any saw of his son’s Maus cartoons.
This is a an absolutely excellent and gut-wrenching book. Even if graphic novels aren’t your thing, I would recommend reading this: it’s not only incredibly good, it’s also incredibly important.
“No, darling! To die, it’s easy … but you have to struggle for life! Until the last moment we must struggle together!”
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.