Thursday, 23 February 2012

Maus: 'a brutally moving work of art'

I’ve recently been 'bowled over' from quite an unexpected source - the graphic novel (comic strip format) collection ‘The Complete Maus’, borrowed from a teaching colleague. It’s the story of the Holocaust as told from the perspective of a Polish Jew and survivor - the author Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek. In it the Jews are depicted as human but with the heads of mice, and the Nazis likewise as cats. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so affecting.
The cover itself is a powerful piece of graphic art. A mouse couple – representing Vladek and his wife Anja – huddle together in the foreground in overcoats, his arm round her shoulder, against the sinister backdrop of a stark black swastika, with Hitler’s head in the middle depicted as a cat’s – emblazoned against a large white moon in dark sky. A bold simple image that conveys so much. The Nazi image, abstract and inhuman: the cat’s eyes are cold, black, void, its whiskers protrude like needles, and the swastika’s rigid blade-like arms convey a kind of scything machine malice.
In the foreground, the mouse couple’s shiny eyes stare out from anxious grey faces, straining to be strong, noses twitching, alert to danger. Both vulnerable and powerless in the face of such malevolence - but still he assumes the role of protector.
They didn't choose their Jewish identity, nor to be born at this time or in this place, but it has fallen on them to face this uniquely dark moment in history’s vast tide. They must struggle to be brave, hold onto life and not succumb to despair. A powerful, poignant image of frail human beings, clinging together for warmth, companionship and hope in the face of a dark and terrifying hostile force. An image with universal and contemporary resonance, not least with the current Syrian 'victim and oppressor' crisis in view. Unforgettable.
To be continued...