Maus: A Survivor's Tale
by Art Spiegelman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, 160 pp., $8.95
Reviewed by Janet Reilly
The publisher of Maus directs libraries to shelve the book under "Holocaust/Autobiography," and indeed, although it is a comic strip featuring white mice as Jews, pigs as Poles, cats as Nazis, and wartime Europe as a gigantic mousetrap, Maus is as restrained an exemplar of this garish genre as can be found nowadays. For several years the tale has been appearing as specially bound installments in the avant-garde art comic Raw, of which the artist-author Art Spiegelman is coeditor along with his wife Francoise Mouly. (A New York quarterly founded in 1980, Raw sports a different subtitle each quarter: "The Graphix Magazine -- of Postponed Suicides," "for Damned Intellectuals," "that Lost its Faith in Nihilism," " for your Bomb Shelter's Coffee Table," "of Abstract Depressionism," and other equally jejune shock-schlock tags. Its folio-size pages, crawling with violent, absurdist, sick and stylish images, are a leading repository of Eurotrash chic, a fact which ticks off American comic artists who feel unfairly left out.)
Maus is actually less another "survivor's tale" than it is another cruel anatomy of the legendary Jewish Family. We have all met this Wunderfamilie: it is uniquely warm, supportive, close and nonviolent. Its parents never hit. Its mother may be "pushy," but only out of bottomless maternal desire to see her precious offspring flourish. Its father is wise, gentle, intellectually stimulating, and never alcoholic. Since the war, the more heavily propagandized countries such as the U.S. have imbibed this myth with their mother's milk; similarly acquired lore includes "The Nazis tied pregnant women's legs together when they went into labor," "The Nazis swung Jewish babies against brick walls and dashed out their brains," and of course that old Christmas favorite, the Anne Frank Story. It is a measure of how much more potent a well-told (and oft-repeated) fable is than mere empirical observation that not until we encounter Revisionism, which dares to call a thing by its proper name, are most of us able to retroactively "conform" the actualities of Jewish behavior we ourselves have witnessed to a rather sounder theoretical framework
Until recently Jews have tried to present a united front of perfect harmony before the rest of the world and keep the weird little pathologies strictly to themselves. Increasingly, however, emboldened by the "untouchable" status they have extorted from American society (if not from other cultures), Jews have been treating these inherent tensions more and more blatantly. That Jews have in fact even less difficulty than most people despising their own kin is clear from the dozens of recent novels, plays, biographies, autobiographies, pop psychology tomes, and films in the Where's Poppa? mode (the father in Death of a Salesman had already gotten pretty hard to forgive, for that matter...). The best way to obsess someone is to reject him, and parental rejection would seem to be the dynamic underlying these ferociously unsparing dissections now masquerading as "American literature." It is also the dynamic, of course, that plays such a large role in ensuring the reproduction of the peculiarly Jewish character structure.
To get back to Spiegelman's adventure, son Artie hopes to understand through his father Vladek's life history why the old man behaves as he does. Perhaps "the camps" are to blame? Perhaps the "Mauschwitz" experience is the solution to the riddle of unloved, unlovely, unlovable parents? At first it seems so, but by the end it has come to seem not.
Most of the rave reviews Maus has received tiptoe uneasily round this central contradiction: that it is one thing to portray one's parent unsentimentally, the better to serve historical truth but quite another thing to have no sentimentality to forego. None of the reviewers has mustered the feck to address Maus as an irruption of the Jewish repressed. They duly note its contents, from the opening quote -- "The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human" (Adolf Hitler) -- to the parting shot -- Art muttering that Vladek is a "murderer" for having destroyed his dead first wife Anja's wartime diaries -but keep mum as to meaning. "A quiet triumph... impossible to achieve in any medium but comics." -- The Washington Post. (Why?) "The tiny animal figures that move, dress, and speak like human beings become a metaphor for the Jewish experience." -- Susan T. Goodman, Chief Curator, the Jewish Museum. (How so, Susan? You don't agree with Hitler, surely?) Spiegelman may well be getting flak from ADL public-image monitors or Mel Mermelstein-style hysterics of authenticity, but so far there's been no public censure.
In the event, Spiegelman's goal of rendering his father's story exactly, warts and all, to make it more truthful, more recognizably human than many of the wildly idealized self-canonizations occasioned by the "Holocaust," has the effect primarily of reinforcing and reconfirming the son's aversion and resentment. As Art confesses to his stepmother, Mala (p. 131), "I used to think the war made him that way... "
"Fah!" blurts Mala. "I went through the camps... All our friends went through the camps. Nobody is like him!"
"It's something that worries me about the book I'm doing about him... ," Art goes on. "In some ways he's just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew."
"Hah! You can say that again!"
"I mean, I'm just trying to portray my father accurately! ... "
And Maus offers no reason to doubt that Spiegelman has accomplished just that. Vladek's irritable, unremitting rejection of his son has driven the latter to become an artist in the first place: because "he thought it was impractical, just a waste of time... It was an area where I wouldn't have to compete with him" (p. 97). In a move which adumbrates a far more serious betrayal at the end, Vladek furtively throws Art's favorite jacket in the garbage, supposedly because it's too "shabby." Anja herself, possibly Vladek's prime victim, has earlier committed suicide by taking pills and slashing her wrists; only a fluke prevents Artie from being the one who finds her lying dead in a bloody bathtub. In a previous strip, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," reproduced in Maus, Spiegelman described his reaction: "I remembered the last time I saw her... She came into my room... It was late at night... "Artie -- you -- still -- love -- me -- don't you?' I turned away, resentful of the way she tightened the umbilical cord... Well, Mom, if you're listening... Congratulations! ... You've committed the perfect crime... You murdered me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!" -- fade out on the vista of an endless cellblock (ellipses in original). The betrayal prefigured by the jacket incident is Vladek's wanton burning of Anja's memoirs, which throughout Maus Art has been eagerly agitating to read at last. And so it goes.
The Elie Wiesel school asserts that the "Holocaust" is so immense that its essence can be approached and grasped only through the most extreme fictionalization, in other words, that nonsense alone touches upon truth (the corollary of Wiesel's unfortunately ignored dictum that "silence alone can speak of such things" as Auschwitz). Spiegelman, on the other hand, writes down all his father tells him, periodically demanding more precise chronologies, dates, concrete details, names, followup. Baldly, the tale is this:
Jewish mouse Vladek Spiegelman-no Mighty Mouse, nor even Mickey Mouse -- is an ambitious young textile merchant in Poland who coldly dumps his penniless long-time girlfriend to marry the homely but clever daughter of a millionaire hosiery-factory owner, Anja Zylberberg. They have a son, Richiev, and Vladek is soon enriched by the match. Having been drafted into the Polish army some years before -- unlike the rest of his family, whose time- honored practice it has been to pull out their teeth or starve themselves in order to be rejected -- Vladek is called up for service in 1939 and finds himself on the frontier facing the German army. He does not shoot ("Why should I kill anyone?" p. 48), but ends up killing one German soldier almost by accident.
Shortly, the Germans (the cats, that is, and poorly-drawn cats they are, too, for all that cats are hard to draw) overrun the pig and mouse position, and all are taken prisoner. Eventually the prisoners are given the alternative of volunteering to work at "a big German company." Here Vladek's lot improves, although the mice are compelled to wield "shovels and picks... things what we never held in our hands before" (p. 55). Those who cannot do the work are left to "freeze and starve" -- or so Vladek assumes; he cannot really tell us what becomes of them.
One day the captive mice are processed out of camp and shipped by train back to Poland. In Lublin the Nazi authorities fritter away yet another opportunity to exterminate them by permitting their release to Jewish "relatives" (for a fee). Vladek makes his way back to the family in Sosnowiec. From this point on much of the tale revolves around the sufferings of rich mice forced to have recourse to the black market to maintain their standard of living. None of this suffering is unique to Jews, of course, but although Maus tends to obscure the universality of this fact of wartime, it also makes quite plain that hoarding, speculating, and black-market profiteering quickly became Jewish specialties; for example, Vladek describes half his relatives as Kombinators -- connivers.
While the extended Spiegelman family enjoys escape after miraculous escape from Nazi attempts to control the currency and regulate economic activity (see, for instance, pp. 79 and 85), rumors are flying thick and fast, and the cats take their sweet time ghettoizing the mice. Four are hanged "for dealing goods without coupons, " "to make an example of them!" (p. 83). In fact, these are the only authenticated executions in Maus; hearsay and assumption account for the rest ("This I didn't see with my own eyes..."). With one exception: Art's elder brother Richiev does not "come out from the war" with his supernaturally fortunate parents, for the simple reason that the aunt who is caring for him, in a moment of blind panic upon hearing that her town is to be evacuated to Auschwitz, poisons him, her own two children, and herself to death (p. 109).
Suffice it to say that the Final Solution was somewhat lacking in finality when it came to the Spiegelman clan -- like so many others. Vladek even emerges from the war with valuables he now keeps in a Queens safe deposit box. One particularly schizophrenic image in Maus (p. 121) depicts the mice gaining access to a new "bunker" in the town of Srodula: the entrance, emanating from a shoe shop, is hidden by an enormous pile of shoes. One wonders if it was the same pile later photographed to represent "shoes taken from gas chamber victims" ...
Steven Spielberg and crew seem to find the mouse an apt metaphor for Jewry, too. Their cartoon feature An American Tail is the heartwarming story of Mousekewitzes emigrating from Russia to the Golden Burrow of America -- Ellis Islanders all the way. Released for the Christmas season -- excuse me, in time for "the holidays," the new Jewish jargon being employed to knock the traditional spiritual punch out of the gentile festival -- the film will probably clean up at the box office, if only because it will be one of the few entertainments fit for children to watch.
Art Spiegelman is now at work on the sequel to Maus, subtitled "From Mauschwitz to the Catskills." One supposes it will be of some clinical and even aesthetic interest to see how both elder Spiegelmans manage to evade the ceaseless efforts of the Nazi Katzen to trick them into taking that shower. Auschwitz Schmauschwitz -- Maus is the subliminal confession, by a cartoonist whose art is perhaps more honest than its creator can bring himself to be, that the "Holocaust" never happened the way we learned in school.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1986-87 (Vol. 7, No. 4), pages 478-483.