Whenever I read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps, I always wonder how it would have been to live through it, and whether I would have survived. Even in the shoes of Vladek Spiegelman – the Polish and Jewish protagonist of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” – who survived the war before moving to the United States in the early 1950s, his survival was contingent upon his connections, his resourcefulness, and a great deal of luck. And throughout the novel I was reminded of my visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau last year, where we saw the appalling living conditions occupants were put through, and also the crematoriums-cum-gas chambers where victims were systematically murdered.
Yet the chronological account of the older Spiegelman is one of two narratives in “Maus”. Through multiple recorded interviews his son, Art Spiegelman, recounts this story of survival, and at the same time documents the estranged relationship between him and his father. Central to this estrangement seems to be the death of her mother, Anja Spiegelman, in 1968. She killed herself by slitting her wrists in a bathtub, and while she did not leave a suicide note it was later revealed that she had recorded her Holocaust experiences in diaries. Even though she had intended for her son to read them, her diaries were burned by the older Spiegelman after her suicide, and when the latter eventually admits to the act the younger Spiegelman calls him a “murderer”.
In this vein too the plot may be straightforward, especially with the knowledge that the older Spiegelman did make it out alive, but the rift between father and son seems to persist. The experiences of second-generation Holocaust survivors thus also features.
As it usually is when I read comics, I do not necessarily have an appreciation for the illustrations, and so watching Spiegelman’s lecture at Sacred Heart University in 1989 – when he was still working on the second volume of the novel – was helpful. He described layouts of selected pages, paying close attention to the use of visuals across pages and panels. Some of these illustrations and pages include: the distance between individual panels, sandwiching the Auschwitz concentration camp; the timeline of events his father went through; and drawing paths or backdrops in the shape of the swastika. These were details which I initially missed, but which enriched the narratives.
One of the things he said in his lecture was, “[our parents who survived the Holocaust] went through so much, [so] how could we make them go through more”, which I thought neatly summarised the central tensions of “Maus”. Much has been said about the presentation of the novel, such as the portrayal of humans as different species of animals, the use of racial caricatures or racist stereotypes, as well as the brutality of the war, yet for me the troubled relationship between the older and younger Spiegelman – coming to terms with the Holocaust and post-Holocaust developments – was the most depressing and moving.