CBR15 BINGO (Picture This square: Maus I, Graphic novel) BINGO! – Strange World to Picture This
CBR15 BINGO (History square: Maus II, Holocaust, Auschwitz) BINGO! – South America to History BINGO! – History to Europe
I have to confess the only time that I read graphic novels is once a year for a bingo square. I was never a big comics person and I tend to equate the two (don’t come for me, I know that they aren’t necessarily the same) but do enjoy the ones that I have read. Not sure what is keeping me from pursuing them (outside of securing a sweet, sweet bingo square on my march toward BINGO BLACKOUT!) but at least I get read one a year, right?
In these two graphic novels, Spiegelman attempts to document the history of his father from the beginning of World War II, to the holocaust and eventually to his life post-war. It’s an autobiography, biography, and history all in one. It is also a story within a story as Spiegelman places himself in the novel interviewing his father during a series of visits.
Maus I concentrates on the deteriorating condition of his parents’ lives in Poland. Spiegelman follows his father from just before meeting his mother to both of his parents on a train bound for Auschwitz. It explores the everyday erosion of their businesses, their rights, and ultimately their ability to obtain food and shelter. The story is often derailed by his father listing his current grievances: his second wife, his son not helping him or visiting enough, and his health problems.
Maus II is mostly about his father’s time in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. His parents are immediately separated into different areas when they arrive, so the majority of the story is about his father’s time there. A quick learner with just enough skills in a variety of trades, Spiegelman’s father manages to keep himself, and later his wife, alive by working as a roofer, a cobbler, and an English tutor.
As Spiegelman struggles to get a fuller picture of what the Holocaust was like, he is also trying to gain a better understanding of his mother who committed suicide when he was young, his father who is difficult to love, and his brother who died before he was born.
Overlapping past and present with “characters” who are not always easy to like is what I think makes this book even more powerful. Spiegelman’s constant frustration with his father’s “stereotypical” behavior doesn’t leave room for empathy or any understanding that his past traumatic experiences may be to blame. His father’s paradoxical racism and passive-aggressive manipulation keep him just on the edge of unsympathetic. But, they are human beings in all of their complexities. Even though the Germans are portrayed as cats, the Poles as pigs, and the Jewish people as mice, Spiegelman manages to let the human slip from behind the mask of illustration.
This book was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. Unfortunately, it is also on just about every banned book list out there. I am beyond exhausted by a loud minority that wants everybody to feel comfortable all of the damn time. What kind of life comes from that sheltering? How can anyone grow up to be grateful or humble or empathetic if they are only given a version of the world that is stripped of history and diversity in all of its often uncomfortable complexities? Why wallpaper everything with a prescribed “sameness” that is offered up as ideal? How can our children develop a moral compass without knowing all of the horrible stuff to point away from?