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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Complete Maus. Art Spiegelman (Writer & Artist). Penguin Books (2003)

Extraordinary and gripping, this is a mixed memoir about Art Spiegelman's parents experiences as Polish Jews caught in the Nazi led genocide and his own fractured relationship with his father. Art Spiegelman has resolved several very significant story problems with astonishing creativity and a very striking use of the possibilities offered by comics.
The single biggest problem that anyone writing about the Nazi led efforts to annihilate Jews and many others identified as undesirable is that the scale of the effort makes it practically impossible to comprehend. On the other hand individual stories struggle to capture the extraordinary scale of the process and the colossal bureaucracy required to drive it. Art Spieglman's first and most important creative decision is to use an anthropomorphic cast, Jews of every nationality are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs. The whole conflict changes into a literal game of cat and mouse, no explanations are needed for why cats chase and kill mice, the focus can stay on how the mouse tries to elude and survive. At the same time a mouse among pigs is still a different species and the death of a mouse is not likely to be very significant to a pig, so the extraction of the Jews from Polish and other European societies is made a lot more comprehensible.
Vladek Spiegelman tells his own story to his son Art and the story starts with how he met his wife, Art's mother, courted her and married her. She was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and the couple had every prospect of a comfortable life, the growing threat to them as Jews started to become clearer and clearer as the Nazis and their allies grew in political and social power. Valdek managed to stay ahead of capture for a long time but was finally found and sent to Auschwitz. He survived the camp and was re-united with his wife and finally emigrated to America.
This is a mixed memoir, it is a much the story of Art Spiegelman trying to come to terms with his father as it is the story of how his father survived the institutional efforts to murder him and his wife. This means that the narrative is consistently switching from Vladek telling Art about his experiences to Art dealing with his father as a difficult, aging parent. This is the second very significant story problem that Art Spiegelman solves, how to place the nearly unimaginable experiences of his parents into the context of a life that continues long after those experiences and whose life is much more than just those experiences.
By cracking the narrative into different parts, having Vladek be the narrator of his own experiences and also be contrasted as the difficult person Art knows as his father with the agile and forceful young man determined to survive the whole mixed and jumbled life comes into view.
Maus was originally published in two books and the opening of the second book is a reflection on the reception and reaction to the first. Art Spiegelman is a character in a book written by Art Spiegelman taking directly to the reader, a situation that could be horribly self serving or just intrusive. Instead it is very natural and deeply engrossing, Art Spiegelman has been as unflinching with himself as a cast member as he is about his father, the similarities between father and son are much deeper than the fact fact that both are drawn as mice. Both have a tough fiber in their characters, although Art seems to have inherited some of his mother's fragility. Creating Maus from the fabric of his own family life is a significant artistic achievement, it takes considerable courage and tremendous dedication as well as talent to turn shards of history into a  satisfying narrative whole, let alone something as imaginatively bold and engaging as Maus.  An astonishing comic from a towering talent.

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