Maus opens to a two-page prologue of sorts, a little vignette that the narrator describes in first-person, from the summer when he was ten or eleven. He’d been skating with his schoolmates, when disaster strikes and our narrator’s skates come loose. He tries to appeal to his friends to wait, but is laughed at and left behind. Sniffling in pain, from both his injury and abandonment, the narrator slowly limps back to his home, where he spies his father sawing something on the porch. When questioned about why he’s crying, the narrator (addressed by his father as Artie) recounts the incident, to which his father replies (and I quote), “Friends? Your friends?… If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… Then you could see what it is, friends!”
With this chillingly ominous scene, begins Maus, ‘A Survivor’s Tale’ as its subtitle reads.
Maus is a graphic novel, written and drawn by artist Art Spiegelman, with it being serialized from 1980-1991, and being collected into two separate volumes, part 1: “My Father bleeds History” and part 2: “And Here my Troubles began”. It holds the honor of being the first graphic novel to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and is considered to be one of the works that elevated the comics medium to literary critique.
Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman, an artist living in New York, and his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor, and their strained relationship. Being a graphic novel lends Maus a unique narrative edge, which you can see in the cover art. Maus represents each race as humanoids with animal heads, with the Jews being mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs, and Americans as dogs. What is surprising is that, this doesn’t turn out to be a one-off gimmick to make the aesthetic more interesting, but actively uses it for some neat storytelling moments. A funny and brilliant example would be when Jews decide to disguise themselves as Polish, they wear a mask that resembles a pig’s snout.
Maus is not entirely fiction, of course, and it walks a fine line between being a memoir, being semi-autobiographical and fictional, as well as dabbling in some metafictional elements. This lends it a sense of intimacy that doesn’t demand you invest yourself in its narrative, but slowly warm up to it, which ends up being a lot more powerful.
Maus’ early story focuses heavily on Vladek recounting his early life to Artie, about his life before the war, how he met Artie’s mother, Anja, and how they managed to survive the Nazi invasion of Poland. The book is filled with graphic imagery, since it’s dealing with the Holocaust, but never indulges in excess to elicit a response out of you that feels cheap or manipulative. Maus’ sketchy but functional artstyle lends itself to the book’s approach of letting the horrors of its narrative speak for themselves and never does the book devolve into a heart-wrenching melodramatic sob story. It could’ve easily spiralled into this because of its subject matter, but willingly chooses not to. Indeed, it feels a bit strange when you find yourself slightly detached from the narrative of Part 1 by the time it nears its end.
Part 2, in this reviewer’s opinion, is a masterclass in narrative, using everything it has at its disposal to flesh out what had seemingly been in sight from the prologue of Maus. Artie and Vladek’s relationship. Yes, some parts of Part one had them arguing with each other, especially when it came to Artie’s mother, Anja, who apparently had taken her life a few years back. Vladek is evasive about Anja, and when Artie presses him further, Vladek reveals that he’s burned every diary and record of Anja, to ease his agonizing loneliness. And this, is at the heart of Maus. It is not about the Holocaust, but rather about the lives of the people who survived, how it has broken their spirits and how it has twisted their perception of humanity, and also how Artie, a boy who was raised within a community of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the USA, has always lived with the horrors that the Holocaust had etched into the minds of his family.
Maus is a tale that deals with something intimate and horrific, but yet it is uplifting, even though the characters that populate its pages are flawed, with their greed, and their often unexpected treachery, they are human, and the fact they are shines through everything else the most when they give themselves up for someone else they hold dear.
Go read it.