A far cry from earlier pieces on Jaffa Cakes, here’s a review of Art Spiegelman’s harrowing Holocaust tale, told through comics, cats and colloquialisms. It is also very depressing and sort of makes you hate people. All the people. Including yourself. And especially Hitler, but that’s kind of a default political stance for most people I guess….
That title truly the simplest way to describe Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel. That, however, would be to disservice a work that stands tall with that most famous victim in its power and emotion. A less simple description would be that it is a harrowing portrayal of the Holocaust, made bearable only through the use of seemingly simple symbolism like cats and mice, devolving the events into a manner the mind can comprehend whilst simultaneously a nod to Hitler’s comment that they are ‘a race, but they are not human’. Underneath the stereotypes and simplicity however is a tale that is uncomfortably human.
It is often said that one cannot truly imagine the horrors of the Holocaust, Spiegelman has ran with this concept and his understated portrayal is so vivid, so stunningly bleak, so real that you do almost forget this actually a real tale of real people suffering real atrocities. All it takes is a picture of Spiegelman’s father, whom the tale revolves around, and is related by, to bring the stark reality crashing down again and bring everything into dizzyingly unsettling perspective. Again its simplicity belies what is truly one of the most powerful pieces of literature I have ever read.
Just as powerful however is how it handles the aftershock of the war, the narrative jumps between Spiegelman’s father’s story, relayed in authentically loose English without a shred of embellishment or lyricism in sight, and Art trying to coax it out of him, all the while haunted by the spectre of his dead mother and fretting over his simplification of his history. These aren’t the terms Art wants to portray his tale in; they’re just the only way he thinks he can. His father’s story is scarcely believable such is the drama, it’s almost Hollywood. But Hollywood is never this grounded, peering up from the muck of mankind’s lowest hour, not judging, not commenting but simply seeing. And that is exactly what this does. It never glorifies its action, always emphasising that this journey is simply one of many, to his father there’s nothing special here, nothing worth telling, it’s just what everyone did.
The scale of Maus’ importance is clearest in the very fact it won a Pulitzer Prize, a stunning achievement for a literary form as looked down upon as the graphic novel and one that is as yet unmatched. Credited with heralding a more serious attitude towards graphic novels it has had a titanic influence upon its form, lending significant weight to the medium and helping to popularise and legitimise it as a whole. However this is a quiet victory, a humble triumph masking the epic tale within. A big story told in simple, real terms; it’s with good reason the Wall Street Journal called it the ‘most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust’.