“Maus” is a narrative of Spiegleman, the author, interviewing his father about his direct experience of the Holocaust and of Auschwitz. Although it’s not without its humour, “Maus” is, unsurprisingly, one of the most depressing books I’ve read. As improbable a statement it is to make, the Holocaust is not presented as the most distressing subject in the graphic novel. The great tragedy of “Maus” is that the Holocaust is such an impossibly large historical tragedy that it dominates all other kinds of story. The most heartbreaking and tragic moments are the passages where the father wants to talk with his son about hotels or why he likes New York over Florida – but all Spiegleman wants to know is the story of Aushwitz, limiting and restraining his father by not permitting him a narrative outside of the Holocaust.
”Maus” places different groups of people into animals – the Jews are mice, the Nazis are dogs. This allegorical level makes this story abject in a certain way. I have heard it argued that this anthropomorphism is pointless: you would gain the exact same effect and the same novel without this element; or been taken controversially to some who find this to make the victims appear common place or even comedic. However, Spiegelman argued this allows the reader to not be sucked into shallow sympathy and rather concentrate on the story – I found the animal representation to not remotely trivialise the events. Spiegelman also avoids the over-determination of meaning that would occur from human imagery. The use of animal imagery also enables Spiegelman “to show the events and memory of the Holocaust without showing them” in order to maintain the focus on the relationship between characters and memory.
It is prudent to note that Speigelman himself is not a Holocaust survivor and never lived through it, as his parents did:
“First of all, I’ve never been through anything like that…and it would be counterfeit to try to pretend that the drawings are representations of something that’s actually happening. I don’t know what a German looked like who was in a specific small town doing a specific thing…I’m bound to do something
inauthentic. Also I’m afraid that if I did it with people, it would be very corny. It would out as some kind of odd plea for sympathy…and that wasn’t my point.”
Spiegelman never indulges in the most morbid or terrible details because this novel is very conscious that when you talk about the Holocaust you are exploiting the death of countless people. Humour is in the framed narrative – but we can only occasionally indulge in it, as immediately in the span of a few panels we receive another terrible moment – the son angry at his father, or it’s back in 1930s with the story of the Holocaust.
The novel alternates beautifully with a faultless pace between metaphysical analysis, both subtle and overt, the framed narrative, and also has occasional intermissions between the actual story of the Holocaust. The book makes a few very important points, even though it leaves many difficult questions unanswered.
The most crucial of these points for me is the fence of storytelling as a human need. At one point Spiegleman states something Beckett said –
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness” – though Spiegleman reflects that he had to say these words to express this thought. This appears to be the crux of the story: storytelling is not a means to an end, rather it’s a basic human need and that’s why these stories are needed, whilst avoiding emotional narcissism, as it’s the least that we can do.