I read and appreciated 'Maus' last month, because of its current prominence in the news, given that it was inexplicably banned from the curriculum anywhere within the McMinn County Schools district in Tennessee. Well, they did give reasons, but they weren't good ones. Naked mice was one and, now I'm seeing those naked mice in 'Maus II', I also see the context. Mice represent Jews in 'Maus' and, in this instance, they're naked Jews because they're being stripped and shaved in Auschwitz. That's the important context missing from the McMinn announcement. These naked mice aren't exotic dancers at the Titty Twister. When your problem with the genocidal Nazi gas chambers is the Jews not having any clothes on while being systematically murdered, then you're kind of missing the point.
I read and appreciated 'Maus II' even more this month, because it does far more than its predecessor and it does it consistently better. Sure, part of that is the break point between the books being a key one, the arrival of the author's parents at Auschwitz and their realisation that the Nazis were doing all the things they'd heard about but survived around. Now they were face-to-face with it and in such a fashion that they knew they were going to die. What follows is primarily what happened to them in Auschwitz, a notably more degrading and horrific experience than any of the degrading and horrific experiences they survived in 'Maus' as they tried to live their lives despite the Nazis.
Much of it, though, is Spiegelman's struggle to deal with the material he's writing about, not just the reminiscences he's getting as he interviews his father but the feedback he was getting from readers of 'Maus'. There are sections here where he's inside his own head, trying to come to terms, not only with the horrors of the Nazis and their concentration camps but what they did to his parents, one of whom later committed suicide and the other of which has become an obnoxious miser in his old age. As I noted in my review of 'Maus', he clearly loves his father but he doesn't like him and that's all the more obvious here. Getting the rest of his story means putting up with Vladek Spiegelman and Art is not entirely convinced that it's worth it.
I don't need to run through the horrors of Auschwitz because you know what they are and what I can say here wouldn't come close to how well Spiegelman delivers the impact of that reality in 'Maus II'. 'Maus' is an important book and one that should be discussed in schools, both as history and as art, but 'Maus II' is that squared. 'Maus' explains why the Jews didn't escape Europe as soon as the Nazis showed up; why they carried on trying to live their lives, even as they were faced with the increasing oppression of a rampant enemy; why they were still so conveniently there when it got to the point of being stuffed into train cars and sent off to the gas chambers. 'Maus II' explains what happened next and that's harrowing.
As much as the elder Vladek Spiegelman is a pain in the author's ass, he's a resourceful character in a tough situation. Just as he figured out in 'Maus' how to get by in Czestochow and Sosnowiec just as a member of the public, he figures out in 'Maus II' how to get by in Auschwitz as a prisoner marked for death, whose wife is in the Birkenau part of the camp. He finds ways to prove himself useful and thus avoid being murdered; to obtain better food, if still insufficient quantities; to make Anja aware that he's still alive and to give her food and hope. He knows that, simply by surviving, others die, but that is the inescapable price to pay. How survivor guilt affects him later in life is a question Art asks here.
And his questions are as powerful as the scenes you might expect to be most impactful, of masses of Jews being systematically dehumanised and murdered. That's because he clearly underlines that the Holocaust wasn't just something that happened long ago in Germany and the neighbours it occupied and polluted with its evil. It was still affecting him personally in New York City in the late seventies, because it was still affecting his father and the discussions they have prove to be a beginning to the explanations he needs in his own therapy.
This book, far more than the first 'Maus' affected me profoundly. I appreciated what the first half of this story did and why it's so important, but it didn't punch me in the gut and it didn't make me think in ways I hadn't thought before. 'Maus II' did. It does what all good Holocaust literature does, namely to explain in a way that human beings can grasp precisely what the inhuman beings behind the Final Solution did and how. But it also goes beyond that. It makes that the backdrop to an acutely personal story, one that's tied within the book to its author, who connects directly to us through the surprising medium of the graphic novel.
But, perhaps more important, it makes us realise that this isn't a blip in history, however notable a blip; it's something that's still affecting us today. The world changed because of it and many things, whether on the grand scale of nations or on the microscopic one of a broken relationship between a father and son in New York, are the way they are because of what happened back then. Psychologists call this generational trauma or transgenerational trauma. That trauma hasn't gone away and when we realise that, because 'Maus II' renders it unmissable, our worldviews are challenged.
That's why 'Maus II' and, by extension, the 'Maus' duology, is such a powerful work and it's why there shouldn't be any doubt that it's a groundbreaking piece of literature, period, and especially in a field that was not known for groundbreaking pieces of literature, the comic book. No wonder it won (and remains to this day the only graphic novel to win) a Pulitzer Prize. I've read some pivotal works in the medium before, books that awe me every time I read them, but 'Maus II' stands among them as one of the greatest graphic novels ever created. And, in the 'water is wet' department of realisations, it should absolutely to be discussed in schools, perhaps especially the McMinn County Schools district, because banning it is a vast disservice to the 5,493 students under their jurisdiction. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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