Monday, September 7, 2015

A Game of Cat & Maus

As a high school senior, I've spent my fair share of time reading and watching various depictions of Holocaust survival tales.  By this point in my life, I'm absolutely sick of hearing about the Holocaust. Yes, it was a terrible atrocity and needs to be addressed so that the world never repeats itself--but there's only so much death and carnage a reader can take.

That was my mindset when I walked into my first day as a DePauw University alpha student.  At my high school, juniors and seniors are given an amazing opportunity to have a taste of what college is really like and enroll in entry-level college courses.  This year, I was enrolled in an ENG 171A class.  The broadly categorized course of "Intercultural Perspectives" left me with about 15 weeks to read 11 novels with topics ranging from Buddhist cuisine to African-American hair.

So, naturally, I huffed a little when my professor said the first novel we would read was a graphic novel about the Holocaust.  Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, who was a Holocaust survivor.  I was sure I knew what would happen in this book--lots of death, lots of despair, and lots of tears.  What I didn't know, though, was how incredibly and beautifully moving this novel was and how deeply it would impact my view on Holocaust literature.

Maus, as the front cover gives away, is told allegorically through mice (Jews) and cats (Nazis).  This allegory isn't so hard to figure out--Spiegelman has turned the Holocaust into a game of cat and mouse.  And that's what it was, right?  However, when the book was first released, this sparked a lot of controversy.  How could Spiegelman relate such terrible people as fluffy cats?  How could he make Jews seem like lesser people by making them rodents--the scum of the earth?  But I think that was his plan entirely.  Spiegelman wanted to truly capture the essence of the time period, and at that moment in time, that's how Jews and Nazis were viewed.  The Jews really were the scum of the earth: they were dirty, they were revolting, and no one wanted to be around them.  The Nazis, on the other hand, were menacing, sneaky, and chased after their common enemy.  Later in the novels, Spiegelman introduces us to the Poles (who are depicted as pigs).  This allegory actually works pretty well, too: when you call someone a pig, what are you calling them?  Greedy, just like the Poles in Maus are.

The most interesting (and probably most controversial) thing about Maus, though, is the fact that the story is told through comics.  When most people think of comic books or graphic novels, we think of superheroes and imaginary, fantastical situations.  And I think that's what I love most about Maus--the fact that Art Spiegelman took something as horrific as the Holocaust and made it into a comic book.  The story is still heart-wrenching; at some times, it's even more realistic because we are given an incredible insight into Vladek's world that (as second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors) we've never truly been able to picture.  Spiegelman's character even says in Maus: Part II that he feels "so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than [his] darkest dreams."  

If you ever get the opportunity to dive into Maus, please do.  Since it's a graphic novel, it takes maybe two or three hours to finish--and that's if you're really studying it.  I never thought I would enjoy another Holocaust novel after The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but honestly, Maus is one of my favorite novels--period.