My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There is something about the comic (yes I have come down from my high throne and now deign to use ‘graphic novel’ and ‘comic’ interchangeably) genre that makes biographies poignantly moving in a way that mere words cannot capture (see e.g. Craig Thompson’s Blankets).
This story chronicles the author’s, Artie’s, successful attempt to turn his father’s, Vladek’s, Holocaust story into a graphic novel. It masterfully weaves two narratives. The first is Artie’s (who is also the narrator) actual attempt to meet up with Vladek to get the story. This reveals Artie’s relationship with his overly-controlling and ridiculously thrifty father. The second is Vladek’s narrative of his experiences during WWII and in Auschwitz, revealing his immense resourcefulness and great love for his wife.
Modern daily life – grocery shopping, husband-wife and parent-child arguments, house hold chores etc – is interspersed panel to panel with the horrors of Holocaust life – war, concentration camps, forced labor, starvation etc. Each time we shake our heads at Vladek’s antics (e.g. he scolds Artie for using wooden matches because he can get free paper matches from the hotel lobby), we are immediately starkly reminded in the next page/panel that Vladek survived precisely because of this resourcefulness (e.g. he always saved some of his food for later regardless of how hungry he was or how little food he got).
On one hand, humor and irony (e.g. Vladek is racist towards black people in modern day) lift the weight of the historical monstrosities. On the other, we are forced to interpret Vladek’s ‘negative personality traits’ through the lens of his history and rehabilitate our own prejudices against the way he acts.
Above all, this story is real (though Jews are mice, Germans are cats and Poles are pigs). The power of art (though often fictional) to reveal truth reaches its zenith in Maus. Perhaps this explains the incomparably vast academic literature on Maus.
Maus should have evoked the full potential of this medium. I am a little lost why it did not. I am ashamed that I only mildly enjoyed this book. I think it speaks more about my own indifference to the Holocaust and my lack of empathy than my review speaks about Maus.