Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
Random House, I June 1991
159 Pages
Graphic Memoir
5 Stars

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Maus is the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler's Europe, and his son, a cartoonist who tries to come to terms with his father, his father's terrifying story, and History itself.

Moving back and forth from Poland to Rego Park, New York, Maus tells two powerful stories: the first is Spiegelman's father's account of how he and his wife survived Hitler's Europe, a harrowing tale filled with countless brushes with death, improbable escapes, and the terror of confinement and betrayal. The second is the author's tortured relationship with his aging father as they try to lead a normal life of minor arguments and passing visits against a backdrop of history too large to pacify. At all levels, this is the ultimate survivor's tale - and that, too, of the children who somehow survive even the survivors.

After hearing only amazing reviews, I finally decided to pick up Maus I. This is only my second graphic memoir, and I'm still new to comics in general, so I don't have much to compare this book to. That being said, I thought it was wonderful.

It's difficult to critique a story when it is true, especially when it's about so harrowing a subject as Jewish persecution under the Nazi regime.  Suffice it to say that Vladek Spiegelman's account is both hauntingly raw and, at times, painfully beautiful.  Most of us have read numerous accounts of World War II, but Maus injects humanity into a story that, I fear, some have turned into a chapter in a history book.  This is why books like this are so important - they keep us from becoming removed from what happened by reminding us of the people it happened to.

Spiegelman does this in such a unique way, though.  He depicts the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats.  Fitting, yes?  In some way, it highlights the ferociousness of the Nazis, as well as the helplessness of the Jews, your basic cats chasing mice metaphor.  Spiegelman also turned German propaganda on its ear by choosing to depict the Jews as mice when the Nazis used to portray them as vermin.

What I don't understand, however, is why he chose to depict the Polish people as pigs.  Is this a nod to how they were slandered by Stalin?  Or is this subtle racism since pigs are seen as unclean by Jewish people?  To be honest, I'm not very learned on this topic, and I could speculate all day without coming to any conclusion.  Let's just say that this choice made me uncomfortable and didn't add to the story.

I appreciate that the book takes place over a long enough period of time to see each of the changes to the Spiegelman family.  It starts at the end of 1935 with Vladek courting his first wife, Art's mother.  During that time, there is nothing amiss.  Slowly, however, their lives become harder and harder as the Nazis push in and take over.

One thing that is always difficult for me to read about when it comes to this time period is the Judenr├Ąte, and Vladek had quite a few run-ins with them that revealed more about their motives and character than some other works I've read.

The other part of the plot that really affected me was how the lives of all the children were changed.  It broke my heart.

I found Vladek to be an interesting character.  He showed bravery, love, and compassion during WWII, choosing to trust certain people, doing what he could for his family, sacrificing for his wife.  As a young man, I respected and admired him.  Yet, in his old age I found him stubborn and cruel.  Some things are obviously results of having lived through such atrocity, such as being frugal.  Yet, his coldness toward his second wife and his attempts to control his son make him almost unlikeable.

My favorite character was Anja, Art's mom.  She was really complex and mysterious, being both brave and weak at the same time.  Watching her gradual breakdown as she fights to stay alive and keep her family together was emotional for me.

I didn't like Art at all.  The way he treated his father, the lack of respect, really bothered me.  His dad poured out his life to seemingly no effect to his relationship with his son.  I felt like he was using his father to get a good story instead of caring about learning about the man behind it.

The disconnect between those two characters was fascinating and upsetting to me.  On one hand you have the harsh father who lived through the worst persecution, and on the other you have his pampered son who takes life for granted.  Neither can understand the other.  And the exploration of this relationship added a whole other layer to this book.  It caused me to think about how we can never truly understand our elders, how suffering is a truly lonely experience, and about how much the younger generations stand to lose out of ignorance.

The art in the book wasn't beautiful by any means, but I found the sparseness appropriate.  What was surprising to me was how little details were thrown in every so often that added to the tone of the story without it actually addressed in the text, such as how numbers are shown in a flash of Vladek's forearm.

The paneling didn't bring anything special with it either.  It flowed well and read easily, but it wasn't particularly creative.  Nor did it anything extra to the story.

To wrap this up, I really liked this and the way it made history personal.  It's not perfect, but it's still an excellent and important book.

I gave it 5 stars.

If you have read Maus I, what did you think? Do you know of any graphic memoirs that I need to read?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Happy reading!