MAUS: Part One and Two by Art Spiegelman

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It must be approx twenty years ago when I really enjoyed reading a comics or just a few days ago when I read MAUS (Part-1 and Part-2). I would like to tell you how I picked this up. Last month, I read three non-fictions back to back by the same author  and I had started reading the fourth also, but meanwhile, I watched the movie based on the same book, and thus, lost the interest and that book was left unfinished. It was somewhat like hitting a reading block, and thereafter I really struggled to get the momentum, I read children books, jokes, short-stories, some books in Hindi and this comics/graphic novel also. To be honest, this book was mesmerizing and disturbing to the core at the same time.

According to the critics, “reality is too much for comics…so much has to be left out or to be distorted.” This was the real challenge that Art Spiegelman accepted and disproved this sentence. Before this, comic books were regarded as an inferior medium for any serious creative expression, but the publication and huge success of MAUS proved that comics too can be as great as any other legitimate literary art form.

Spiegelman has been a protégée of Hippie Culture of 1960s in US and a key figure in the Underground Comics Movement (1968-75), both as a cartoonist and as an editor. Underground comics movement often featured covers intended to appeal to the drug culture, and imitated LSD-inspired posters to increase the sales. It was an age of experimental arts. In comics, Justine Considine introduced ‘autobiographical comics’,  Frans Masereel invented ‘wordless novel’, so inspired by these cartoonists, Spiegelman too wanted to do something different, personal and revealing. At first, he wanted to do a strip on Racism focusing on African-Americans, but he turned to the Holocaust and depicted Nazi cats persecuting Jewish mice in a strip that he named MAUS.

Let’s do a short synopsis of the both parts. The story begins in mid 1930s. The main characters are Art, the cartoonist himself; Vladek, his father; Anja, his mother; Mala, his step-mother and Francois Mouly, his wife. There are many other characters also, but they appear as a glimpses and vanish, but the above five remain with us till the end. Spiegelman interviews his father, a Holocaust survivor in the Rego Park neighborhood of NYC in 1978-79. The story begins from Vladek’s time in a Polish city Czestochowa and how he came to marry Anja, into a wealthy family of businessmen. He had a girlfriend also before the marriage. After the marriage, in 1937, he moves to Sosnowiec, an industrial city of Southern Poland nowadays. He was doing well in business and Anja gave birth to his first son, Richieu, but after that, she started suffering from postpartum depression. The couple decided to go to a sanatorium in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Anti-semitic feelings and politics of hatred were high in those times. After the return, he finds out that Germany is planning to attack on Poland and so he is summoned by the army to fight on the front. Poland is defeated, annexed and he is captured as POW (Prisoner of War). After a short stint of hardship as POW in the camps, he sneaks across the border and reunites his family.

When the ghettoization started in Poland, the Nazis moved the Sosnowiec ghetto to Srodula ( a former village but now the northern district of Sosnowiec) and marched them back to Sosnowiec to work there. The families splited up- Vladek and Anja sent Richieu, their only son, to Zawiercie to stay with an aunt for safety. But, as more and more Jews were sent usually from the ghettos to Auschwitz, the aunt poisoned herself, her children and Richieu.

In Srodula, many Jews had built bunkers to save themselves from Gestapo. Vladek’s bunker was discovered and he was placed, as a punishment, into a ghetto inside the ghetto surrounded by the barbed wire. The furniture and other valuables were taken away by the Germans and they were forced to live in utter penury. After a few days, Srodula is announced free from the Jews as all of them were sent to the Auschwitz, except a few who couldn’t be discovered from the hidings or they saved themselves by bribing the police. When the Germans departed, the group split up and left the ghetto

Both Vladek and Anja, in constant fear of getting caught anytime, moves to Sosnowiec in expectation of meeting some place to hide themselves or some acquaintance willing to give refuge in their homes. Somehow they survive there for a month or two, but then Vladek arranges one day with the Polish smugglers to escape to Hungary. Anja was not ready but she had to, as there was no other option and if they hadn’t moved they would be found and sent to Auschwitz ultimately. They agreed to go to Hungary, but it was a trap by the fraudulent smugglers. The smugglers informed the Germans and both were arrested in the train at a station, from there they were sent to Auschwitz and remained separated in different camps until after the war.

So this is an outline of the main story but the narration in the novel (graphic) fluctuates from present to past, past to present. Vladek’s present eccentricities, his resourcefulness, his utter attachment to his bank deposit, his frustrations over his second wife Mala, his troubled relationship with his son, the cartoonist himself, his love for his first wife Anja, his long cherished prejudices and his illness all these are shown with a perfect blending in the narration, but the most remarkable thing is the emission of pathos by the caricatures and by the dialogues of Vladek. Though this is a story of utter heinous crimes against humanity but there are many grey shades also, some Poles were sympathetic towards Jews but some were as cruel as Nazi Germans, even some Jews were working for the Gestapo. If I talk about the character development, Vladek, the survivor is in the main focus and you empathize with his narration, laugh, weep and feel the same anguish. In some reviews, I read that people shed tears while reading it. It is so extremely heart-wrenching and disturbing.

Spiegelman has used animal faces to depict the different races- Jews as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs etc. After the huge success of the first part, he was asked why he did so and he said that he took the advantage of the Nazi propaganda films which depicted the Jews as vermin always. It’s not surprising that the epigraph of the book is a quote by Hitler, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”

The German authorities were first cautious to allow the German edition of the book as the cover displays a Swastika, a Nazi symbol, and that is prohibited by German laws, but when publishers convinced them about the serious intentions of the content, they allowed. It was a best-seller in Germany and is taught in schools now. The Polish edition came very late because the Poles were angry by their depiction as pigs. It was Piotr Bikont, a Polish journalist who took this issue seriously and went on opening a publishing house just to publish this book. The crowd protested and burnt the book in front of his office. Well, Biokont put on a pig mask on his face and waved to the protestors from the office’s window- that was his response.

I have watched many movies on WWII, among them Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002), The Great Escape (1963), Life is Beautiful (1997) and many other also which I can’t remember right now are close to heart. I find in Vladek the same life force, and sometimes more, as the Polish-Jewish pianist Wladislaw Szpilman had to overcome all the odds and hardships and remain alive in the ghettos and camps.

So anyone interested in reading about the Holocaust survivor’s stories must read this graphic novel. It’s really a great art work and the impression of it would not be easily forgotten.

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*The photos are borrowed from the internet. We give the full credit to the original creator/owner.

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