Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – Book 1

It's German. For mouse. Get it?Written and drawn by Art Spiegelman
Published by Pantheon Books

52 Pick-Up Week 26:

After last week’s installment, my comrade-in-arms Tomer asked me if I had any special plans for this week, it being the halfway mark. I said that indeed, I did. You see, I’ve known about Maus for a long time, and I’ve meant to read it for pretty much that whole span of time. However, I knew it would be a bit of a heavy read, and I always put it off. No more! Thanks to 52 Pick-Up, I finally had the opportunity and the motivation I needed to sit down and read this book. And am I ever glad I did!

For anyone who doesn’t know, Maus is the story of Vladek Spiegelman - a Holocaust survivor, as told by his son, Art. The story relates the experiences of the Polish Jew during the Nazi occupation while simultaneously exploring his and his son’s relationship years later with the two having come to live in New York. In fact, much of young Vladek’s tale is told as the father recounts his exploits to his son, who thinks they’ll make a great collection of comic strips. Yes… Art is interviewing his father for the book that we, as the audience, are reading. It’s not an entirely unique idea, but it does get rather surreal at a few points – like when Artie runs out of the room for a pen and paper because he doesn’t want to forget to include the conversation we’ve just seen the Spiegelman’s have. It’s pretty great.

Of course, the real meat and potatoes of the book is the story, as the title suggests, of survival. Save for the imagery, the elder Spiegelman’s journey could just as easily and appropriately have been chronicled in a standard novel. It is a very down to Earth tale of love, loss, and living by your wits. It’s also remarkably engaging. At 159 pages, it’s no quick read: the material is dark, heavy, and at some points rather dry – yet still, it pulled me through from start to finish without pause. This is how compelling the drama and characterization is. Mind you, Maus is comprised of two books, and I simply couldn’t do both in one sitting. As I read the final word of book one, I found myself both speechless and emotionally exhausted. In a good way.

Beautiful. Chillingly beautiful.For me, the most interesting part of the book is the voice with which Vladek is written. At first, it came across as stereotypical, but Spiegelman addresses this in context. Flatly put, his father sounds like a stereotype because his father was the kind of man that set the standard for the stereotype. Having grown up with Polish great-grandparents myself, and a father who was very much a fan of Jackie Mason, the pattern of Vladek’s English is immediately recognizable to me. To some it may seem overdone; to me, it’s a walk down memory lane.

Spiegelman isn’t just responsible for writing this masterpiece, but poviding the art, as well. If you know anything about this book already, you’re likely aware that the Jewish characters are portrayed as mice (as seen on the cover above) and the Nazis are cats. Above and beyond that, though, Spiegelman gives each nationality their own “spirit” animal – the chubby cheeked Poles are pigs, the French not surprisingly frogs, and the Americans are dogs of all different breeds. It’s quite brilliantly handled, to be honest. Once in awhile, it can be a bit difficult to identify one character from the next, but when the art becomes even the slightest bit unclear, the dialogue more than sufficiently picks up the slack. It works. Really well.

Maus – Book 1: My Father Bleeds History gets 5 out of 5 pig masks. It is everything I’d been led to believe. I look forward to taking the time to enjoy the second volume – this time I won’t wait so long.

I said it in the exerpt. Everyone should read this book. If you can’t enjoy it, per se, you should certainly be able to appreciate it. The figures may take on the form of anthropomorphised animals, but this is nothing if not a tale of humanity. I’m once again thankful for having undertaken this endeavor, because I’ve once again had my eyes opened to something wonderful.

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Who ARE these people!?

Jason Kerouac is a co-founder of Panelsonpages.com. He spends roughly half of his waking life in servitude to the Giraffe. Raised in a town in New Hampshire you've never heard of, he now lives in Indianapolis, IN and is pretty sure that's a step in the right direction.

Comments (8)

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  1. Tomer Soiker says:

    I’m ashamed to say that I’ve yet to read Maus

    I want to buy it, but not sure if I’ll get the originals or the translated re-release (one big volume) from earlier this year, so my brother could read it too.

  2. Ben Gilbert says:

    A brilliant piece of work. I read both parts over a rainy weekend and was moved beyond belief.

  3. Eilonvi says:

    I will read it one day,
    but as you said (in different words) it seems heavy
    and i get easily depressed by such stories….
    it was a great review though, and I was intrigued by something you said – what do you mean by “it’s a tale of humanity”?

    • Jason Kerouac says:

      My comment about it being a tale of humanity is directed at just how fully developed these characters are. Artie’s mother, for example, spent time at a sanitarium. His father’s a skinflint who picks up bits of wire off the street. Artie himself is a fairly rotten son whose only real interest in his father is the story he has to tell, as it’s meant to serve as the basis of Artie’s book. Point being… the details are there that make these characters real.

      And honestly, don’t confuse the weight of the story with it being a depressing one. While, yes, this is very much a tale of suffering and loss, I find it to be moreso a tale of survival and of overcoming the odds. You may be just as likely to be uplifted by Vladek’s tale as you are to be brought down by that of his lost friends and family.

      And, since I can see your particulars, let me say it’s nice to meet a Lloyd Alexander fan!

  4. Eilonvi says:

    yep, a Lloyd Alexander fan I am since I was a child :)
    Think I read his books like a million times (OK…not really a million, but close).
    Never though have I realized how rooted are his stories in Welsh/Celtic myth, until lately.

    I’m glad that finally someone notices that my virtual names are from his books :):):)

    Maus is on my reading list now – awaiting my own rainy weekend…

  5. Matt (shark) says:

    Great review Jason. I had to read books 1 and 2 for my Holocaust class in college. A great read, informative, heavy, and captivating.

  6. Eilonvi says:

    I do, but the light of the Pelydryn is no more :)

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