BY L.E. MILLER
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
For many years I would not read it. A comic book about the Holocaust? Nationalities reduced to animal species? Auschwitz renamed Mauschwitz, like some sadistic Disneyworld attraction? Even its Pulitzer Prize was not enough to convince me.
Then I met the man who would become my husband. I accepted his enthusiasm for the graphic novel format grudgingly, as one often accepts the quirks of one’s mate. Having never cracked the spine of a single graphic work, I believed the genre was the exclusive domain of men with marginal personal hygiene. My someday-to-be-husband’s all-time favorite of the graphic genre? Maus, the very book I swore I’d never read.
For two more years, he urged me to read it. I’m quite sure he once slipped the book in my luggage when I traveled. It made the round-trip unread. Once, he looked across the table at me and sighed.
“I’m just wondering if you’re ever going to read Maus.”
His determined championing of the book finally broke me, or perhaps it was the two hours I began traveling to work each day by commuter bus. Soon after I started that job, I packed Maus in my work bag. In the book’s opening panels, I met Artie Spiegelman, then a youngster in Queens, in tears after a scuffle with neighborhood friends. His father responds in his Polish-inflected syntax,
Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!
And there we enter the knotted world of Art’s father, Vladek, a man who, in his son’s words, bleeds history. At the heart of the story is the jaw-dropping story of Vladek’s survival, and that of his wife, Anya, in occupied Poland and then in Auschwitz, by dint of their courage, Vladek’s cunning, merciful strokes of luck, and their tenacious love for each other. Lest you think you’ve entered Schindler’s List territory, the story is foregrounded by the many conflicts Vladek has in his present-day relationships: with Art, with his second wife, with just about everyone else around him. The Jewish mice, German cats, Polish pigs, and American dogs emerge as fully human characters; in its stark black-and-white artwork, Maus spans the extremes of kindness and cruelty. It is at once spare, unsparing, and, in places, darkly funny.
Behind the book’s classic themes of the survivor’s tale and the intergenerational struggle, the ironies are layered. Love helps Vladek and Anya survive the terrors of Auschwitz, the loss of virtually their entire family, including their beloved first-born son, yet Vladek’s rancor poisons most of his relationships in the new world. Is it possible that Vladek, now a tightwad, narcissist, and racist, was his best self in the barracks of Auschwitz? Yes, Vladek and his wife are survivors, but are they really, when Anya commits suicide and Vladek remains warped by his memories for the rest of his days? Art, born in 1948, is heir to the corpses piled up on his father’s psychic floor. Much as he struggles against his father’s litany of demands and complaints, the two nonetheless share a thorny kind of love.
In his therapist’s office, Art questions the validity of his own work by quoting Samuel Beckett: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” I first read Maus a few weeks before September 11, 2001, and read it again in the shadow of the recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan. While Maus offers no easy consolation, its hard-earned compassion honors the unspeakable and, ultimately, lights our way.