Book Review: The Complete Maus

‘Graphic’ and ‘novel’ ideally stand apart for any reader, since the former tends to rely largely on image and the latter on text. I decide to judge for myself, the result of merging the two, when the TSBC Challenge comes up with a “Graphic Novel Special” in June. And, by now, I’m attuned to lay blind trust in their recommendations.

But it wasn’t the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM.

the_complete_maus

Pavel’s astute observation on the Holocaust, in Maus, constantly rings in my mind as a comment on reading, as well as mis-reading a survivor-story. Half way through the book, he questions the writer’s own perception of the Holocaust and its survivors even as he tries to lighten Artie’s emotional/creative dilemma and distress (graphically portrayed by Artie’s shrunken size). Could we extend this remark to life itself, I wonder, as I try to consolidate my experience of ‘reading’ Maus by Art Spiegelman, as a part of the TSBC Challenge.

The book-cover leaves little to the imagination, for one can’t help but notice a vivid swastika cross. One broadly knows what to expect, but not quite. Expectation, in the world of Maus, is a mistake. I’m told by the mini-blurbs on the inside of the jacket that the work is autobiographical. However, the predominant images of cat and mouse seem at odds with this intention. Why would an autobiographical work require a metaphorical representation? Intriguing.

I read through what seems to be a sort-of-a prologue. It has a distinctly appealing expression in graphic terms, even as it makes a strong point. One can’t help but smell betrayal when little Artie’s ‘friends’ leave him alone, and his father tries to question the son’s perception of what friends really are, by alluding to a crisis situation.  Well, crisis and betrayal go together, the reader assumes, until she is faced with Artie’s well-reasoned decision, as a writer, to break his father’s promise and acquaint the readers with a young and a rather carefree Vladek, who has had a casual romantic liaison with Lucia before marrying Artie’s mother. Can we entirely trust Vladek, or Artie, for that matter? Complex.

It feels fascinating to constantly balance between a plethora of image-frames and text. Interestingly, the frames convey that which the text misses. For example, in the dinner table scene, when the entire family gets together after Vladek’s return to Poland after the war, the text conveys the serious discussion between the elders of the family regarding the worsening times. However, the pictorial frames show how little Richieu spills his food only to be beaten-up and scolded by his mother, who later, towards the last frame, holds him lovingly. Endearing.

Another question that remains unresolved is that of Spiegelman’s choice of metaphors. And it’s a relief for the reader to sense his own occasional creative unease or confusion with regards to this choice. For example, he can’t seem to decide the corresponding image-metaphor for his wife who is a French woman, converted into Jewish faith. Perhaps, the metaphors, as masks, mean to fit the context rather than the individuals themselves? So, it is merely within the cruel, inhuman context of the Holocaust that the Jews appear mouse-like, through their extreme resourcefulness, and obsessive burrowing for survival. And yet, as Spiegelman remarks, Vladek retains his obsession of excessive economizing, saving, and stocking, years after the crisis. Or, then, are these metaphor-masks meant to provide a critical distance, which makes it easier for the writer to reconstruct and for the reader to read an unimaginable crisis? Unsettling.

Furthermore, despite the stereotypical connotation of a graphic representation as trivial and superficial, Spiegelman does not cease to complicate matters. For example, even as he speaks for a side that has been at the worst receiving end of racism, he does not exclude Vladek’s stereotypical perception and inherent dislike of the community of Blacks.  Plus, the reader also appreciates Artie’s constant sense of inadequacy in being able to reconstruct a trauma that he was not a part of and cannot even imagine. His urge to earn the right to narrate an inconceivable trauma and the fear of mis-expression adds a lot of intellectual honesty to the work.

What one however misses in the work, is the lack of a multiplicity of voices, especially that of a female experience. Indeed, one feels with Artie the loss of his mother’s diaries, but one wonders why Mala is not given a chance to share her story. Pavel’s story is also restricted merely to the needs of Artie’s creative discussion with him.  The presence of another distinct voice would perhaps add more balance and richness to the narrative.

Finally, it’d be imperative to mention about some of those frames in the book that still resonate in my mind. For example, when Vladek narrates an incident of an identity-confusion regarding one of the prisoners at Auschwitz, the enlarged image in Artie’s mind changes from that of a mouse to a cat in the very next frame. Also, right at the outset, Vladek’s visit to his cousin is conveyed literally on a train ticket. Some of the frames that show Vladek spilling his pills, or breaking a dish seem to have the feel of real movement.

On the whole, Maus by Art Spiegelman makes for an engaging read, and is fairly unputdownable. I would have hardly had a chance of acquainting myself with the captivating experience of reading a Graphic Novel, had it not been for the June TSBC Challenge. As usual, can’t thank you guys enough!

Anamika Purohit

This is what  Anamika has to say about herself:

Besides pursuing research in the field of English Literature, I also experiment with teaching and writing, on a freelance basis. I love to wallow in the process of engagement when it comes to books, literature, cinema and conversations; my creative and academic pursuits are always high on my priority-list.

Thank you Anamika, for taking up the TSBC Challenge once again. This badge is for you 🙂

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