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Customer Review

68 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of those books everyone should read..., 25 July 2004
This review is from: The Complete MAUS (Paperback)
The world of comics/graphic novels is one relatively unfamiliar to me- I don't know why, as those that I have read I have loved, e.g. From Hell, Ghost World, and this collection of Art Spiegelman's Maus-works from the 70s to the 90s (the chapters were published seperately & differently between 1980 and 1991 and the 'cut-in' story Prisoner of the Hell Planet originates from Short Order Comix in 1973). I never usually get round to the 'graphic novel' section in bookshops- I tend to plump for fiction and usually find a few titles there, pay for them and leave. So, I was pretty much oblivious to The Complete Maus until a recent BBC4 programme pitched it against Schindler's Ark/List. I loathe the way the BBC has to turn everything into a competition (I thought Schindler's Ark was a great book!), but appreciated the way that The Complete Maus, written in a format people seem to look down upon, was presented as another way in which the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust (Shoah) were dealt with (perhaps the BBC should have made a documentary or series on ways in which culture has represented the Nazi Horrors of the 20th Century?). But no matter, I'd logged the name in my head and a piece on Spiegelman and 9-11 recently made me go out and look for it...
And I feel cheated that I didn't discover this book earlier, as I could have read it several times more if I'd found it a few years earlier. Spiegelman takes his family's personal history- his mother's suicide, his father's unhappy remarriage, his family's European origin, and above all the experience of the Nazi Holocaust and places it in the comic-form (which even Vladek looks down upon here, until he reads Prisoner of the Hell Planet). As a book relating to the Holocaust, it is extremely personal and you are reminded that this is just one man's memories of such horrors for the most part (though the book has a complex narrative frame, a vast array of supporting characters and stories, coming with all the complexity of any great American novel of the 20th Century). The 'present tense' of each chapter comes from conversations between Art and Vladek, often with Art's wife Francoise and Vladek's second wife Mala. There are both health and relationship problems between the characters in the now- which is as riveting as the recollections of Vladek. It ought to be added now that Spiegelman, perhaps nodding towards Orwell's Animal Farm, decides to render his characters in animal-form. Thus the Jews are represented as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as Pigs, the Americans as dogs, and the Swedes as deer. This makes it ideal for anyone to understand, a universality is implied- though the book is so captivating that I forgot about this pretty much instantly. A captivating tale, brilliant illustrations and a compulsive structure had me reading on and on...though I tried not to go too fast (& felt strange at enjoying a tale of such horrors...).
But like the greatest works, there is much here to enjoy- I'm not sure that there's a better primer in the Jewish experience of the Holocaust (well, there is, Primo Levi's If This is a Man/The Truce, but I'm not being patronising here, but that book may not appeal to teens/younger readers who really should be learning this history- The Complete Maus like The Diary of Anne Frank could very well be a conduit to key texts on this period, such as The Third Reich: The History, Ian Kershaw's books on Hitler, or Martin Amis' Time's Arrow). The episodic nature of The Complete Maus reminded me of two favourite books, again by Primo Levi- Moments of Reprieve and The Periodic Table. The early sections detailing Vladek's life as a suitor and factory-owner in 30s Europe reminded me of Levi's recollections in The Periodic Table of life before the WWII horror, while the parts told of life in Auschwitz-Birkenau recalled Moments of Reprieve's experiences (the lack of food, the kapo's, the selections, etc).
The Complete Maus quite rightfully has won many awards, including the Pulitzer and proved that the unsayable/unexpressable can be said. Many people had problems with Spielberg's Schindler's List (a film with flaws, but well meaning), but Spiegelman plays the right-card when he deals with the Shoah from the perspective of his father. Spiegelman even leaves in scenes of 'Art' debating whether he can write about the Holocaust and puts in references to his father's racial views on African-Americans and an allusion to the state of Israel (in occupied Palestine). The Complete Maus is a complex work that I've only read once and know will reveal more with the next reading...and the next...and the next...
The Complete Maus is one of those books that everyone should read and is a work that rightfully takes its place alongside the greatest works relating to the Jewish Holocaust, e.g. If This is a Man/The Truce, Schindler's Ark, The Pianist, Night & Fog, Shoah, The Sorrow & the Pity, Ashes & Diamonds, Holocaust, The Moon is Down, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nazis: A Warning from History, The World at War, The White Hotel etc.
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Location: Worcester, UK

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