Maus—a Survivor's Tale

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Story by Art Spiegelman, 1986 and 1991

Maus—A Survivor's Tale, whose two volumes, My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began, were published, respectively, in 1986 and 1991, is a graphic narrative (or comic book) in which Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father Vladek's life—life in pre-World War II Poland, survival in Auschwitz, postwar life in the United States—as well as his own efforts to come to terms with that past. The book is also an homage to his mother, Anja (Vladek's first wife), who too survived the camps but later committed suicide. In a representational twist that seems to heighten the reader's empathy, Spiegelman makes use of the conventions of the animal fable by drawing the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as dogs, and so on.

The Library of Congress's Cataloguing-in-Publication Data inform us that Maus 's call number is D810.J4 S643 1986—in other words, Maus, which attempts to analyze the Holocaust primarily through historiographical means, can be found on library shelves next to historical volumes. And indeed the book's title, Maus—A Survivor's Tale, would place the text squarely in the realm of testimonial literature—that is, among nonfictional texts. On the other hand, the very medium (the comic strip) that Spiegelman has chosen to represent his father's recollections and his own relationship to his father is one that displays markers of fictionality and does not normally concern itself with historical accuracy or the strictures inherent in writing history. This very hybridity is evident from the moment the reader faces the cover of the first volume, where decisions about design and promotional text indicate immediately that the text at hand cannot be located in either camp exclusively.

On the back cover Jules Feiffer notes that Maus is "at one and the same time a novel, a documentary, a memoir, and a comic book"; the Washington Post 's review opines that the book is "impossible to describe accurately"; and the New York Times (on the front flap) points to Maus 's "remarkable feat of [blending] documentary detail and novelistic vividness." Similarly the back cover combines a map of wartime Poland, which also includes the locations of the Nazis' death camps, with a comic strip panel depicting Vladek sitting in an armchair and telling his story to Art, who is lying on the floor. Quite literally this combination of images bespeaks Maus 's insistence on mapping a personal existence into and onto historical space, of fixing individual specificity within a larger context. In addition these two graphic elements elegantly draw together Maus 's main concerns: Vladek's survival at Auschwitz and Art's attempts to come to grips with his father and his father's story. In other words, Maus fruitfully exploits the putative disjunction between the work's narrative genre (auto-biography-memoir-testimonial) and the chosen medium, the comic strip.

Possibly the best expression of the hybridity of Maus 's genre is the use Spiegelman makes of photographs within the text. Toward the end of the second volume, Spiegelman includes a picture of Vladek in a concentration camp uniform. The putative power of a photograph to bestow authenticity to its surroundings, however, is annihilated in the following panel, when Vladek explains the circumstances in which it was taken: "I passed once a photo place what [ sic ] had a camp uniform—a new and clean one—to make souvenir photos." This photograph stands in a synecdochic relationship to the text at large: it makes the point that a mimetically realistic authenticity is impossible while also stressing that a radically antimimetic and completely nonrepresentational depiction is not desirable either. In other words, then, this admission of the relative inauthenticity of any discourse about the Holocaust prepares the ground for the sublation of the binary opposition between representability and nonrepresentability. Maus at-tempts a balancing act between these two extremes. On one hand, the text seems to affirm the fact that the Holocaust cannot be represented: after all, it employs a quasi-Brechtian Verfremdung by way of the animal imagery and steers clear of any potential aestheticization through the use of a pictorial technique that is deliberately flat and monochromatic. On the other hand, Maus clearly believes in the possibility of rendering intelligible historical events by way of constructing a narrative and by grounding the validity of that narrative in the authenticity of a survivor's life story. Based on his interviews with Vladek, Art attempts to render history realistically and accurately in comic book panels whose chronological and narrative sequentiality is constantly interrupted by epistemological parentheses; reflections on the appropriateness of the medium to the historical events; and the consistent foregrounding (rather than the elision) of the ways in which obtaining, processing, and representing information are interlinked in rendering visible Vladek's life story.

Maus thus locates itself within the force field that, more than 50 years after the end of World War II, informs the dissemination of representations of the Holocaust: by necessity it faces chronological remove; transmission of its narrative by someone other than a survivor; awareness of the existence of a media industry from which texts cannot escape; and an increasing awareness of the impossibility of fixing the one putatively correct way of representing the Holocaust while being acutely aware of the desire for locating that one proper way.

Maus makes the point that any desire to finally and successfully "work through" the Holocaust is an illusion—no ultimate resolution is possible, and despite chronological finality the Holocaust will extend itself into the lives of successive generations. It is patently obvious that the lives of survivors will forever be influenced by the shadow of the Holocaust. Maus also demonstrates that even if the representatives of Art's generation chose deliberately not to make the Holocaust a subject of their discourse, the Holocaust would by necessity insert itself into their lives, by virtue of the role it played in their parents' lives. Maus indissolubly links the necessity to make the Holocaust a subject of discourse and the ultimate futility of speaking about the Holocaust. In fact, these two strands are linked into a Möbius strip of sorts of our century, in which, as Jean-François Lyotard has theorized, the Holocaust was an earthquake that destroyed the very instruments that were customarily used to measure the strengths of earthquakes and in which the belief in a linearly progressive conception of history has been severely undermined, not least due to the Holocaust.

—Stefan Gunther