This month has been a busy month, and while about 3/4 of the way through A Game Of Thrones, I won’t get it finished before the 31st. So (slight cop-out) I chose to read one of my prescribed books for my English class- MAUS by Art Spiegelman. I’ve been putting off writing this review because it’s such a sensitive topic, and I want to be respectful in talking about it and I wasn’t sure how to tackle it. But here it is.
I hadn’t known that the book was a graphic novel when I’d ordered it from Amazon. I thought it was a textbook about Art. There’s a sticker on the front cover, that obscured the Nazi swastika on the front, and since I hadn’t bothered to look too closely, I also had no idea the book was about the Holocaust.
The inside cover was the first thing I read, and thankfully I did. The Times review helpfully explained that the mice were Jews, the cats were Germans and the pigs were Poles. I wouldn’t have understood about the pigs later on had I not read it. The book is split into two parts – before Auschwitz and being in Auschwitz itself.
The first half of the book introduces Art and his father, Vladek, and explains that Art wants to turn his father’s experiences into a comic. I loved seeing ‘the making of’ the book while reading it, it made the story feel so real. Throughout the book, the setting switches between the point at which the comic is being drawn and his father’s memories.
Vladek explains the gradual changes that occurred in the 1930s. These small changes begin with the family seeing their first swastika in Czechoslovakia as they passed through a small town on the train. Vladek’s speech is in disordered English throughout the book, and at first I thought this was just a bad translation, but Art speaks fluently. The caption at the bottom of the drawing of the Swastika flag was very striking to me. He says ‘Here was the first time I saw, with my own eyes, the Swastika’.
From that point, things become continually worse for the family, but I loved how Vladek always found something to be positive about through all the struggles he lived through. Positive things such as finding a better shelter or being able to feed his family while in hiding. I also enjoyed seeing Vladek in the present day, and seeing the changes that this experience had made to him. I thought it was interesting that (very early on) he is displayed as the stereotypical racist idea of a Jew (something that Art notes during the book, but says it can’t be helped because that’s the way he is).
The second half of the book takes place in Auschwitz itself and the descriptions Vladek gives are incredibly vivid. Art draws some very disturbing images without making them too graphically horrifying. It’s a very delicate balance, but it’s executed very well. The story Vladek tells is shocking- there were details of Auschwitz that I’d never heard of, ones which I feel too disgusted to write on this page. At one point I felt physically sick, and couldn’t understand how anyone could live through those experiences and come out sane at the end. I know my mind wouldn’t have lasted if I’d have seen those things.
The artwork was really enjoyable to look at. It was simple to follow along to and although the faces of the mice weren’t incredibly detailed, each emotion was conveyed perfectly. There are pages within the book which display a different style of drawing from Art’s earlier days, which I thought made a great contrast and exhibited his talent very well.
The book took me about 3 hours to read, and I’m glad I did. It was a great and eye opening read. Not often do you get to read the story of a survivor which is unedited by the news for shock value. This was a very raw and real story of a holocaust survivor which has certainly changed my view of the Holocaust- it no longer feels so far away.