When I first heard the premise of Maus, my interest was immediately piqued.
Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, was a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The graphic novel (the only one ever to win a Pulitzer, by the way) tells his father’s story of survival, depicting the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats. The Gentile Poles are pigs, Americans are dogs, and the French are frogs (cute one, Spiegelman).
I expected it to be a standard, harrowing tale of torment, starvation, brutality, and survival, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. Spiegelman not only tells his father’s story, but his own. Vladek’s story is told in the context of his son’s research. Art wants to write a comic about his father’s life during WWII, but it’s impossible for his research not to affect him because his subject is his father. His father is not perfect; he fights with his wife, constantly comparing her to his first wife (Vladek remarried after Art’s mother, Anja, took her own life), expects Art to help him do stuff around the house without asking first, and complains to his son about everything.
Spiegelman is brutally honest in his portrayal of his relationship with his father. When Art is so easily annoyed by his father’s pack-rat tendencies and miserliness, I can totally relate. Like Art, I grew up in the United States. We weren’t rich, but we never starved, and we never knew what it was to go without the basic comforts of life. But my parents lived through the Korean War, and saving random odds and ends helped them to survive.
I get annoyed with my parents for saving useless containers and using them as Tupperware, despite the fact that our cabinets are overflowing with actual Tupperware. I hate that there’s so much clutter and useless junk in our house. I recently noticed that my mother still keeps old Happy Meal toys in a curio cabinet in our living room. I hate that she gets so mad when I throw a pickle jar into the recycle bin after I finish all the pickles.
But I have no idea what it’s like to lose out on extra food for later because I don’t have anything to carry it in. I don’t know what it’s like to lose something and regret it because it’s not possible for me to buy a replacement. I change my clothes every day; I don’t know what it’s like to wear every article of clothing I own and still be cold.
And, yet, even though I know (objectively) what my parents suffered through, I still can’t help but think, But the war is over now! and get annoyed that my parents don’t seem to understand that.
Spiegelman sets up a fair bit of tension between his horror at what his father had to endure, his admiration for his father’s survival skills, and his inability to use that understanding of his father’s history to be nicer to him.
The first volume of Maus takes us right to the gates of Auschwitz, and Vladek has already lost a son to the genocide. And it’s not only the way that Spiegelman tells Vladek’s story that’s compelling, but also the way he shows his audience what it took for him to personally get that story to tell it.