Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unexpectedly Satisfying

I have about an average amount of Holocaust knowledge. I've seen a few movies, and I've been to Auschwitz. I probably also have average graphic novel experience. I've never read comic books, but I have perused my fair share of Sunday funnies and scientific adventures chronicled in children's magazines. So I had average expectations going into Maus. Now, I am leaving it with a more than average satisfaction.

In my opinion, choosing this form and depicting the characters as animals was a brilliant idea. By personifying mice, cats, and pigs, Spiegelman managed to actually "personify" people. It is one thing to read a history text or statistics, but it is quite another to see a very personal story played out on one hundred pages of comics. I found the characters to be very relatable due to their quick bursts of dialogue and the modern context in which the character Spiegelman is uncovering his father's story. Like we mentioned in class, people think in short bursts, not long paragraphs. Even reactions such as "gasp!" have slipped into our everyday speech, as dialogue, and no longer as actions.

Even though Spiegelman has drawn people as animals, the characters are definitely human. We can imagine that Auschwitz survivors took advantage of their freedom by sleeping in and treating themselves to the good things in life. We can also assume that their friends and relatives always treated them like superheroes. The truth is, these survivors and their families are still humans, despite, and because of, the horrors they experiences. Spiegelman's father, Vladek, gets up super early and is constantly busy.

Vladek: I'll get you there anything you want fo the week to eat...turkey legs, fish, whatever you want.
Art: We don't want much. We'll be leaving in a day or so anyway.
Vladek: Leaving! But you only just came! I planned you to spend with me 'til the end of the summer.
Art: We told you it was just for a few days to be sure you'd be okay alone up here.
Vladek: Sigh. Then better if you didn't come, now I got used a little to having you together by me.
Art: Bah!

I thoroughly enjoyed the exchanges between Spiegelman and his father; they are exactly the way any father-son relationship realistically would be. This passage illustrates that what Vladek really wants after all he's been through in life is to be with his loved ones. It also clearly shows how irritating and manipulating an old man he can be. In addition to characterizing a credible person to whom many can relate, Spiegelman neatly ties Vladek's quirks back to his experiences in Auschwitz. And despite this heavy subject matter, Spiegelman infuses smatterings of humor quite effortlessly into the text. A depressing and inappropriately funny moment occurs when Vladek tries to pawn off some leftover cereal onto his son, who says he should just throw it away.

Vladek: Ever since Hitler, I don't like to throw out even a crumb.
Art: Then just save the damn Special K in case Hitler ever comes back!

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoyed this book, and part of the reason that enjoyment surprised me, is my own personal lens. Just having been to Auschwitz a few months ago, and becoming close friends with a Polish girl while abroad last year, the location descriptions put me right back there, and Vladek's accent was particularly endearing. On the other hand, my grandmother is German, and was a little girl during WWII. She had little to eat and witnessed her neighbors being burned alive from the destruction wreaked in her small town by the Allies. I am one of those people who becomes very annoyed when it is implied that all Germans from the beginning of time until eternity are evil Nazis. It should go without saying that obviously I find the Holocaust horrific and a completely devasting and unnecessary event, but it has always been a particularly touchy topic for me because of the other stories that get overlooked. Mention Hitler to someone and watch their face screw up in immediate rage; ask them about the Katyn Massacre and they will probably stare at you blankly. (In the winter of 1939-40, the Soviets secretly murdered hundreds of Polish officers deep in a forest, one shot after another, and then blamed the Germans for decades.) The constant bombardment of guilt and the vast number of Holocaust memorials lose their effect after a while; seeing this individual story in Maus brought me back to the realness of what happened.

This entire semester has taken me by surprise. It's not just the sneaky rapidity with which the time has flown, but almost more how truly interesting all my classes have turned out to be. This class in particular has been an unexpectedly engaging and enlightening experience, and reading Spiegelman's Maus II was as well.

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