Monday, January 22, 2024

Of 'Maus' and Men


If ever in doubt about how serious a graphic novel can be, pick up a copy of Art Spiegelman's "The Complete Maus". There have been many other visual creations which had much more profanity, violence and explicit acts (so-called adult content) and there will be many more such but none will be able to match the desperate darkness of this straightforwardly told tale of mice, pigs and cats. If the thought of reading yet another Holocaust story induces eye-rolls, still give it a thought because this portrayal of its madness is unlike anything else.

To begin with, there is the author Art Spiegelman's personal trauma borne out of his father's strangeness. In a happy place in a happy time far away from the events, years and lands that scarred his father, it is difficult to comprehend the experiences that made him this way. Not being able to do so renders a distance between father and son which is a different kind of torture and perpetuation of sadness. Even as his father delves into the horrors of his memories, the son's sympathy for him is tempered with the practical realities of handling his Dad's insufferable behavioural quirks. The son understands (now) where they are coming from, that still does not make them easy to put up with.

That by itself is the genius of "Maus". It humanizes through allegories of animals, bats for understanding despite tremendous imperfections of the victim(s) and perpetrator(s). It tells of how easy it is to be manipulated to hate and how we understand this periodically only to forget it once again. Experiences of the desperation to survive whilst ensuring the same for those closest to you and the terror of failing to do so in the face of industrialized in-humaneness would have been too much to take if not told in the form of a 'comic book'. It offers the reader a
thin veneer of a story of fantastical talking animals to hang on to, all the while knowing that the skeletons underneath are cold hard facts. Even so, "Maus" is not for the faint-hearted.

Wars burn throughout the globe again - Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Iran-Pakistan to name a few. A rising crescendo of identity politics based on race, ancestry, geography and/or religion encircles it with determination and speed. Innumerable are the number of occasions where history has shown the inevitable failures and tragedies that this leads to. Yet the illusion that all the ills of "I/we" can be blamed by fixing "You/them" continues to sell like hot cakes. In any circumstances, "Maus" is not a joyful read but always a necessary one.