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"Maus" by Art Spiegelman

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Maus, a graphic novel written by Art Spiegelman, tells the tragic account of the Holocaust through the words of Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor, and the protagonist of the book. Unlike usual representations of historical events, Spiegelman effectively associates narrative with images, going beyond limitations of regular comics in dealing with heavy subject matters like the Holocaust. Just like how his relationship with Vladek is complex in both past and present as depicted in Maus, a comic is a justifiable medium that allows him to play with time and space to elucidate this difficult relationship in the most objective way possible. Since their peculiar relationship was largely influenced by Holocaust memories, by smoothly coalescing Vladek’s Holocaust experience and Art’s guilt into the same pages and panels, Spiegelman merges the idea of past and present into one whole novel that sheds light on the main themes of guilt, grief, tragedy and family. Spiegelman’s representation of characters as animals, most outstandingly, Germans as cats and Jews as mice, leads to the interpretation of the stereotypical predator-prey relationship they share, and hints the dehumanising treatment of Jews by the Germans that runs throughout Maus. Through interweaving two narratives, Vladek’s narrative and Art’s narrative of Vladek’s, Spiegelman’s expression does not merely allow him to explore Vladek’s response to his survival, but also to search for a sense of closure to his own troubles as a survivor’s son.

The father-son relationship is characterized mainly by a sense of guilt that manifests in both characters, where Vladek’s survivor’s guilt leaks into a burden carried by Art. Under this context, striving to achieve historical objectivity, Spiegelman obtained motivation to portray their relationship in a way that does not entirely credit Vladek’s heroism, but also does not nullify Art’s respect for him. The depiction of Vladek’s parsimonious and peevish nature is made poignant by his relationship with Mala, whom he frequently alienates and rebukes. This hints of Spiegelman’s dislike towards Vladek’s idiosyncrasies, building up palpable tension between father and son, and tells of Vladek’s troubles with coming to terms with his Holocaust experiences. The first signs of such tension between them was when Art interrupted Vladek when he went off track while recounting and loses sense of chronology, adding to the clashing narratives. Albeit the revelation of Vladek’s imperfections, Art still maintains objectivity and respect for Vladek through depicting his admirable traits such as foresightedness, intelligence and determination in his Holocaust experience. However, it must be considered that in many other ways, Maus is a manifestation of Art’s insecurities, and perhaps, only through portraying their relationship through such a text type, the weight of the Holocaust remains and allows Spiegelman to gain significant catharsis.

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Art Spiegelman, child of a survivor, commonly termed ‘second generation survivor’, faces the atrocities of the Holocaust through interactions with his miserly father for recordings. Rather than over-glorifying him, Art portrays Vladek in a realistic light, distancing himself from stereotypical representations of heroes in tragedies. His attempt to achieve objectivity is emphasised by blatantly acknowledging Vladek’s and his own faults, along with the unsympathetic illustration of both characters. However, due to his personal prejudices against Vladek, Spiegelman’s indication of his struggles with objective representation illuminates his biased portrayal of Vladek, as contrasted to that of several other characters he portrayed on warmer grounds, for example, Mala and the French man. Mala is relentlessly tolerating of Vladek, despite his neuroses and perpetual ill treatment towards her. Her character is presented in a much more objective light relative to the way Spiegelman presented Vladek as she is one of the characters whom he is not emotionally associated with, allowing him to distance himself from personal conflict and transition to an objective listener who purely wants to portray her experience. However, with Vladek, Spiegelman’s sentiments towards him gets tangled up with the narrative, which boils down to the very fact that he is Vladek’s son, which, unquestionably, retains some form of affection albeit their constant mutual outward expression of aggression. The unfair representation of Vladek also stems from Art’s guilt through post-memory of the Holocaust. Maus exemplifies the father-son relationship through their interactions that are strictly kept professional, consisting of recordings of Vladek’s memories of the Holocaust. Gradually, this familial post-memory transcended into Art’s guilt of not surviving the Holocaust, further straining the relationship with his estranged father as a result of Vladek’s inability to come to terms with his Holocaust experiences as well as Anja’s suicide. Consequently, memories of the Holocaust became part of Spiegelman’s childhood and life, dominating the narrative with his overwhelming guilt. Although the guilt that both father and son face caused much friction in their relationship, it also establishes mutuality in their relationship, ultimately binding both narratives together where interviews with Vladek serve as a common ground for them.

Spiegelman’s feelings of inadequacy, partnered with guilt, pervades throughout Maus through revelations of Vladek’s influence in his life, before and even after his death. As a ‘second generation survivor’, Art takes on the daunting task of understanding the Holocaust through Vladek, which successively led to his own struggle as a survivor’s child. In the novel, Spiegelman makes a conscious attempt of diverting readers from probing into his troubles by portraying characters as anthropomorphic animals. Using animal characters highlights the immense suffering of the Jews that readers of this generation cannot possibly identify with. Consequently, this suffering transcends to children of the Prisoners of War, who shoulder the burden of their parents’ suffering as they feel guilty for not having experienced the pain and perils of the war. The depiction of characters as animals also serves to illuminate how the dehumanizing atrocities of the Nazis not only massacred people, but also tainted the psyches of generations following the Holocaust. Writing Maus in itself as a means of catharsis from his own endeavours showcases that Spiegelman was still unable to come to terms with Vladek’s pain, as well as his own. However, his subliminal attempt to understand Vladek backfired, resulting in the gradual manifestation of guilt in Art as the story progresses. The Holocaust permeates Vladek’s and Art’s lives, causing a rather inexplicable void in Art as he is unable to fully relate to his father, with Vladek also keeping him at a distance by reason of Art not being able to sympathize his behaviour.

Although the portrayal of Vladek’s Holocaust experiences was biased to a considerable degree, readers cannot lay complete blame on Spiegelman. Firstly, Vladek’s stories were handled by Spiegelman through the filter of his own interpretations. On top of that, Vladek’s narration of past events from decades ago, in itself, could already be subjective. Considering that Spiegelman himself was aware of his own bias and emotions that likely marred the objectivity of Maus, along with the fact that he, after all, is a product of Vladek’s survivor’s guilt, questions his intentions of writing the book in the first place, which is perhaps not to wholly present an accurate historical novel but as catharsis to come to terms with his own guilt. Through representing the perplex father-son relationship in such a manner through the medium of comics, Spiegelman might also have wanted to get into the deeper business of understanding Vladek and unravelling the complexities behind their relationship, which he spoke about in many interviews, about not being able to fully understand his father and thereby establishing a gap between them. Thus, through the portrayal of his relationship with Vladek, Spiegelman conveyed the bias that lies in the representation of this father-son relationship.

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