Writing a review about a book about the Holocaust is tricky business. The sheer emotional horror overwhelms critical senses, as it probably should. We approach it with trepidation, and worry, and perhaps those are entirely justified burdens. And yet, we keep trying to grapple with the most unimaginable horrors through art, and through commenting on art. This is one of those places where perhaps it's good if it's difficult. That should never, ever be easy, because struggling with it is the least we can possibly do.
Other thoughts, as I was sitting this morning out on my in-laws back porch, enjoying the early morning of the first vacation we've had in a very long time. (All four days of it, and all involved with visiting family.) It's hard to reconcile that, and the bunny that hopped by, and the hummingbirds, and the brief moments of peace, with the Holocaust. It unweights every calculation. It's sometimes hard to find balance, to recognize and reconcile the horrors that went on with the small pleasures of life. And that's just for those of us who have never come closer than a book or a movie. What does it do to those for whom the horror is nearer and sharper?
In a way, that's the tack Maus, in its two volumes, takes. Not so much the contrast between horror and peace, but between horror and mundanity. Experiencing the unimaginable and then trying to exist. The struggles about how to even tell the story. Spielgelman skips back and forth between his father's story and his own, about dealing with a father he may not like very much, even if he loves him. There are, in each volume, pages about how Spiegelman is worried about portraying his father as a stereotypical penny-pinching Jew, even though that's how he really is. He keeps saying, to ward that off, that none of his father's friends who also survived the Holocaust are like that.
I don't know that I have much to say about the core conceit of the book, where the Jews are mice, the Germans, cats, the Poles, pigs, Americans, dogs. It's effective and makes it easier to tell the untellable, and also perhaps to put things on the page that could not be accessible if we had to see them being done to humans. Is brutality made more palatable in this way? Or is it a clever way to sneak past defences and really sink home the dagger of the past?
There's one way he draws mice in despair that is heartbreaking to behold, with their heads tilted back and all you can see is their mouths.
Other than that, it sounds callous if I say that the book is good, and affecting, but that I still felt a distance from it. Whether it's that I've heard these stories in other ways and my mind is throwing up defences, or that the frequent breaks back to the present serve to undercut instead of emphasize the horror, I'm not sure. Getting away from horror, even to bits about how it's impossible to get away from horror, at least for those who survived it, what does that do to the tale?
On the other hand, this is truly something I've never seen from a graphic novel again, and I'm reading it decades down the line from when it was published. As an experiment, and a testament, and a story, it is powerful. And should be grappled with.