Civic Imagination

Maus: A Survivor's Tale

Maus is a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that narrates the story of Vladek, a Jewish survivor from the Holocaust, and his troubled relationship with his son Art. It is a story that appeared as a series of inserts for Raw Magazine during the 1980’s, and that in 1992 became the first graphic novel to ever win a Pullitzer Price. It is set in two different timelines. The first one originates in the present, situated in 1978’s New York City where Spiegelman talks with his father about what he experienced during of the Second World War. The second one unfolds in the past, where a portion of Vladek’s life is told since the 1930’s until 1945. The story unfolds in the form of cartoon animals (the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats) as it drives the reader through some of the harshest moments of Vladek’s life, as well as the uneasiness with which his life developed after the war. It is inspiring in the way that it depicts an engaging testimony of the war, and also in how it opens up about the difficulties the father-son relationship endured because of the guilt and the resonance of the past. At its core, Maus is a tale about hardship and endurance, conflict and love. It is a tribute to the power of survival. “At one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book. Brilliant, just brilliant.” –Jules Feffer

I encountered Maus through a class at my University. We were exploring the different approaches one can have to a narrative, as well as the impact that form can actually have over content. I found the story to be immediately appealing, for as a Mexican Jew of Polish and Russian descent I have always had a very close relationship with the memory of the Holocaust. It was only because of chance that my great-grandparents managed to migrate to Mexico in time to avoid the tragic destinies that annihilated the rest of our relatives. Otherwise, I dread to even think that I might not have been here to write this today. Although I had read other novels and accounts related to the Holocaust, none of them had moved me in the way that Maus did. There was something about the expertise and simplicity with which Spiegelman managed to translate his ideas to graphical imagery that I found to be quite alluring. His metaphorical representations of people through animal figures were simply genius, and the story had an aura of inventiveness I’ve hardly encountered anywhere else. I guess that is part of the reason why it is such a well-known story. Especially during the 90’s it generated a wide response from audiences, critics, and academics, which perhaps peaked as it received a special Pulitzer Price. Since I read it, I’ve shared it with my peers and with anyone who’s ever asked me for a book I recommend. It is unexpected and different, and definitely worth a read.

This story can inspire because it builds on an individual experience that is behind an abstract number. It is practically impossible to imagine what more than six million people actually look like; it is a figure so unbelievably big that it tends to become an empty number in which individual stories verge on being invisible. Spiegelman’s representation of his father’s story just comes to show the power that an actual face, name, or experience can truly have when being told correctly. It creates a space for identification and empathy, and as it touches upon themes of guilt, memory, endurance, discrimination, family, and survival, it becomes relatable to a wider spectrum that goes beyond only those it might directly affect.

Graphic Novel, History, biographical, Holocaust, World War II, WW2, Art Spiegelman, Maus, memoir.

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