Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Humanizing the Holocaust Through Mice: A Review of Maus I & II

Originally posted at my Goodreads account:

Today, I went to the library and I picked up a variety of graphic novels. Among them were Maus and Fax from Sarajevo. After reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, I suppose you could say I’m hungry for more graphic novels about wartime. As odd as it may seem, I believe that graphic novels are probably one of the best mediums with which to truly capture the human side of war.
It’s especially funny that one would describe Maus as “humanizing” the Holocaust and WWII, because the characters are all animals. The Jews are mice (There’s a funny moment where the artist talks about how he contemplated drawing his wife, a French woman who converted to Judaism) the Poles are pigs, Roma are Gypsy moths, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, Swedes are moose, and French are frogs.
It’s almost absurd to think about how this animal tale could so thoroughly capture the tragedy and suffering that people underwent regardless of nationality. But it does.
The narration itself is interesting too, built around a story within a story. The topmost layer is of Art the artist attempting to capture his father’s stories. It’s not an easy task, his father’s a crotchety old man who is difficult to deal with, absurdly frugal, and clingy towards his son. There are some funny moments when you see that stuff the father clearly never intended to go into the comic are included.
Him being so persnickety, having such a strained relationship with his son, his maltreatment of his second wife, and his idiosyncratic habits may irritate Art, but for the reader, they help us realize how tragedy doesn’t make people into angels. It makes them into survivors, and survivors do not come out of their trauma as virtuous beings capable of no wrong. It’s difficult for people to have conversations about the effects of trauma with honesty and clarity, so its portrayal in Maus is particularly memorable and strong.
In his past, during Shoah, Art’s father wasn’t a fellow of Mary Sue virtue either. He bartered with Cats and Pigs who were persecuting him and his people in order to secure his life, and survived by being crafty and lucky. Art grapples with this, but he has to acknowledge that, being born after the war, he cannot know what it is like to be focused on one goal: Survival. It changes people.
There are equal moments of bitter, funny, and tragic in Maus, and all three help form a semi complete portrait of one survivor’s experience and how it plays from generation to generation. In fact, the book is dedicated to Art’s daughter.
As we advance in life, it is presumed that something as terrible as Shoah can never happen again. This assumption is predicated on the idea that we cannot ever sink that low again, that we’re above that now. In a section added for the complete edition, Art is shown being asked by a German translator about how German youth are “tired” of the Holocaust, and why should they feel guilty about it? Art replies that we are all guilty in that instance. But books like Maus make it clear that the price we pay for a world where we hope a Holocaust won’t happen again is that we know it, learn of it, and never forget it. Books burn, people die, pictures fade and crack. But memories can help keep it fresh, and they can live on, from person to person, if they are shared.

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