This is one of the more famous graphic novels, so I was very happy when I had the chance to put it on the VCE text list this year for year 12. Maus is a novel that, while dealing with the aftermath of the holocaust, is primarily concerned with the relationship between a father and a son. Art is trying to understand his irascible father Vladek, a survivor of Auschwitz. We see Vladek as a miserly, mean spirited man who counts the cost of everything and is especially hard on his unfortunate second wife. He holds rigid views and is quick to anger.
Art visits his father in an attempt to understand him, and through this, understand his upbringing and his mother, who is now dead. We are taken back in time to the initial meeting of Vladek and Anya and we see a very different young man. He was confident, well-connected and seemed about to fulfill a bright promise. Of course, history tells us that this was not to be so for a young Polish Jew and this is where Vladek’s story really begins. We follow his trials throughout the war and his love for the fragile Anya. The couple marry and have children and do their best to survive and keep their family together. Anya’s fragility is highlighted early in the relationship, so the reader can only wonder what a woman like this will do when what must happen eventually does. Whilst we learn of Art’s parent’s ordeals we keep being brought to the present to remind us of the current situation between the surviving family members. This temporal shift allows the story to avoid overburdening the reader with the sadness of the plight of the Poles and foregrounds their attempts to survive and them moves back to the present thereby diffusing the emotion. The narrative allows us to consider how families manage to live through their tough times and what traumatic events do to people. Self image is a powerful theme and we see what can happen to someone when their self image is unable to be reconciled with their situation.
Speigelman tells a tender and sad story of a young man seeking desperately to understand his father. The black and white drawings allow for a dimming of the emotion so as to avoid melodrama. The devices such as using cats for Nazis and mice for Polish Jews make the story seem like a fable at times, again, distancing the reader from excessive emotion, and yet the poignancy of the story is very strong. I cannot wait to see what my year twelve students make of this graphic novel. Art’s struggle is that of many young men trying to understand their parents and their parent’s generation. Art is unaware of the many events that made his parents who they were and his journey of understanding is universal.
For more on Maus see this review: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/culture-mulcher/2013/10/09/maus-at-town-hall-art-spiegelmans-history-of-comics-tour-de-force/