MAUS by Art Spiegelman: To survive or not to survive

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the deaths of millions is statistic.”

— (allegedly) Joseph Stalin.

For the sake of brevity, let’s just say it’s Stalin’s.

Who would’ve thought Stalin’s infamous remark on genocide is actually an insight of our own human nature? Yes, we are as cold-hearted as Stalin, apparently. More often than not, some of us regard Holocaust as tragedy because we’re being told that it is a tragedy. That genocide is horrific and anyone initiating that should be condemned to hell. And so on, and so on. We’ve been agreeing so because we’ve been told to, not because we actually feel the grasp of how horrific it actually is. Well, no one’s to blame here. Not Stalin, not even Hitler, just our own human nature.

But Spiegelman’s MAUS is here to give us faces and names onto what we’ve known to be horrific only in numbers. Spiegelman not only successfully proves Stalin’s infamous “a death is tragedy, thousand of deaths is statistic” invalid. No, he reverses it. In this semi-autobiographical graphic novel, the survival of one individual is exactly why it’s a tragedy, and makes these fragments of story worth retelling.

Spiegelman poses as protagonist, tries to choke first-hand Holocaust story out of his father, a Jewish survivor.
Here, we’re being given a face that effectively renders the statistic once more into humanistic tragedy. Even more, the face we’re seeing here is not at all an ordinary one. Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, literally had witnessed it all–and escaped it all. From Sosnowiec to Auschwitz. From gas chamber to cremation pits.

Dead relatives was not an unfamiliar sight for him to see. Dead people was out of question of being extraordinary, indeed. Hunger lurks from every corner that he has no longer sense to eat normally. But that’s not all. As the reminiscent goes along, we eventually see another ‘gift’ from the war that Vladek has yet to carry.

In parallel with his father’s reminiscent, Spiegelman let us see how Vladek had turned into a harsh, bitter, anxiety-ridden character in life after war. Though leading an economically decent life, Vladek still refused to spill even the tiniest bit of food. When Vladek ran into supermarket in order to exchange a box of cereal leftovers with new one, Spiegelman was out of words. His life and body may have escaped the war. His soul, apparently, has not.

Spiegelman carefully maintain the flow in telling this two-sides of coin. He cleverly chose not to expose it all in one shot. Stories about Nazi in the first book, MAUS #1: A SURVIVOR’S TALE: MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY isn’t all that gripping. But the strained father-son relationship that’s extensively shown bugged me enough to think, this must leads to something. And the second book, MAUS #2: AND HERE MY TROUBLES BEGAN shows me why.

Spiegelman’s decision to depict involving races in animal representation is also laudably effective. Although told from the perspective of an individual, we hardly can ignore the bigger picture of racial politics that went on. Other than the obvious polarized parties, Jews as mouse and Germans as cat, there was also Poles taking role as war scavenger. Thus, Poles are portrayed as pigs. The symbolism perfectly shows how, in the time of crisis, human are reduced to rely on their beastly instinct.

Overally, beyond its perplexingly tangled motives, MAUS differs from other holocaust-retelling by questioning whether is it better ‘to survive physically yet mentally-wounded’ or ‘to die in your old sane self’. Who are we to answer? MAUS has sewn an irony of its own.

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