The second installment in this month's What Should Kester Read? is The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. Like this month's first installment, Persepolis, Maus is a graphic novel. Like Persepolis, Maus is memoir mixed with history. And, like Persepolis, Maus is poignant, personal, profound and just about perfect.
Maus is Spiegelman's take on his father's account of living as a Jew under Hitler. Spiegelman's parents were both Holocaust survivors and, like all Holocaust survivors, were never quite the same. But Spiegelman's account is fascinating in that it deals with the fact that his parents were not altogether changed, either. He discovers that his mother struggled with depression long before being sent to a prison camp and that his father's angst may not be entirely attributable to that event. In doing so, Spiegelman shows how we are all shaped by circumstances, but not wholly shaped by them.
In telling his parents' story he also tells his own story. The choices he makes in sharing their struggles provide insights into Spiegelman's own struggle. And unpacking both stories helps to reveal how layered and complex all stories are. Just the simple fact of his turning the characters into animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, Poles are pigs) brings about the complication of how to show someone is Jewish and Polish (mice in pig masks) or how to portray his own wife, who is French (a frog until her conversion, which changes her into a mouse). These solutions seem flimsy and yet their flimsiness seems intentional. Spiegelman writes as someone too close to the story he's telling and yet needing to tell it.
This, ultimately, makes for a great story. The fact that it's mixed up and complicated and confused is all part of it. Because the story of any tragedy and who we were beforehand and who we are now is all mixed up and complicated and confused. No metaphor is perfect. No words suffice. And this story is about that too.