Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

This month’s selection, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel that’s been out since the early ’90s. I had read part of back in college as part of a Holocaust Literature class and have wanted to read the complete story since. I picked it to read this month because April 15th was Holocaust Remembrance Day and felt it was an appropriate time to read it.

The Complete Maus is part memoir for Spiegelman and part biography of his father, Vladek. The story goes back and forth from Vladek recalling his life to the present as the author struggles with not only getting the story right, but also with his father. The novel is broken up into two parts. The first one starts with Vladek’s life in the ’30s and ends in 1944 as he and his wife, Anja, are sent to Auschwitz. The second part picks up with their arrival in Auschwitz and ends just before Vladek passes away in 1982.

It’s hard for me to pick just one thing I loved most about The Complete Maus. The illustrations are brilliant as Spiegelman portrays the Polish Jews as mice, German Nazis as cats, Polish citizens as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Whenever Vladek or any other of the Polish Jews tries to hide what they are, they are drawn as wearing pig masks to blend in. By telling the story through such a visual medium, it has more impact on the narrative. It also has more of an impact on the reader because it forces the reader to pay attention and think of the characters people even though they are drawn as some kind of animal. I think if Spiegelman had chosen the more traditional road of drawing the characters as human beings, I think the emotional impact of it would be lost. It would feel too typical when clearly Vladek’s story, and everyone who went through the Holocaust, is unique.

Another thing I greatly appreciated was Spiegelman’s willingness to include uncomfortable conversations. There is a lot of unpleasantness between Spiegelman and his father, between himself and his wife, and between himself and his stepmother, Mala. He was willing to share with the reader that his mother committed suicide when the author was twenty-years-old and that his father’s second marriage is not a happy one.

Spiegelman and his father have a very tense relationship because Vladek is a very difficult man to live with and growing up he made his son feel like he wasn’t good enough. He includes in the narrative a scene where he confesses to his wife that there were times growing up he was so angry with Vladek that he wished he had perished in the Holocaust. Then there is the constant arguing Vladek has with Mala. Why those two people got married is beyond me. I think it was a case of it being convenient for both of them so neither would grow old alone.

Yet despite this tense relationship, and Vladek’s tendency to manipulate others around him emotionally, there is respect between father and son. It develops over the time Spiegelman wrote and recorded his numerous conversations with his father so that by the time Vladek is dying, they have reconciled. That reconciliation, while not shown to the reader, is one of those things you know happened through read the story and seeing how their relationship changed. Why else would Spiegelman be willing to portray his father in a sympathetic, flawed light as well as himself? There’s no need for some big dramatic scene because that’s not the point of the graphic novel.

Overall, I loved The Complete Maus. It’s emotional, powerful, and shows the lengths people who are persecuted will go to try and survive. The Holocaust, like all systemic genocides, brought out the absolute worse behavior in people. Not just the Nazis, but the victims as well. Vladek recalls how prisoners lied and harmed each other just for an extra bit of food. Harrowing to read and see people being reduced to such a feral state.

On a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Complete Maus 5 pencils+. Wonderful book and an absolute read for everyone.