Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Kind of Animal Are You?

The world is moving on from the horrors inspired by the wars of our fathers and grandfathers, isn't it? I mean, as I grew up in the nineteen eighties and nineties I can remember distinct periods of time where both World War II and Viet Nam were at the forefront of the collective American consciousness, two recent stains on history's time line that we "must never forget" were simultaneously erased from conversation by a new, seemingly more horrifying never forget event on September 11, 2001.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to jump from one of those doomed burning towers any more than I can imagine what it must have been like for a Jew waiting to die outside the death chambers of Auschwitz. As current events make many Americans wonder if our post World War II support for the re-formation and sovereignty of Israel was actually worth it the story of the Holocaust seems to be oh so 1993. This was certainly my attitude as I dove in to Maus, Art Speigelman's brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel. Although it came highly recommended by a friend I silently wondered if the world actually needed another re-telling of a tragedy whose relevance is quickly fading fast from memory.

Turns out, we do.

Maus, for me, is not really a story about the Holocaust at all. Sure, it's there in all it's bloody zyklon-b body-filled gas chamber madness. If you are looking for a history lesson, you will find it. But it is also a story of a young son (Artie) trying to make a connection with his aging father (Vladek). He wants desperately to pay homage and respect to a man who he loves dearly, but whose habits and history have almost nothing in common with his own. As the tale unfolds, jumping back and forth between World War II era Poland and modern day United States the author reveals more and more frequency how frustrated this man he is trying to honor is making him. However, Vladek, with his constant fits of frustration towards his second wife's spending habits artfully reveals that with all of their generational differences he and Artie are not all that different.

Maus succeeds for me then because it so closely resembles the stage I have reached with my own father. As he has grown in to an older man I find it harder and harder to understand his habits and eccentricities. But like Artie, in spite of my frustrations, I have a deep, almost unspeakable love and respect for him. I am intensely fascinated by the life he has lived and the things he has accomplished in his 61 years on this planet. At times I have considered working with him on a biography to document his achievements and tragedies. Unfortunately, the outline I am working on in my head has an ending that would be totally fabricated (as of this writing). Perhaps, like Speigelman, I could use the graphic novel as my medium, allowing the narrative to trail off into oblivion (with an ending that Coppola cut and pasted into The Godfather: Part 3). This one isn't about anything more than the journey though, so don't expect much in the way of resolution or loose ends tied. You won't find them.

What you may find however is pragmatic life advice from a people who seems to be made to suffer. Speigelman somehow manages to build up Jewish stereotypes before breaking them down. Then, just when you are ready to cry "bullshit", he builds them back up again. These are, after all, history's mice we are talking about here, often bullied by races much more powerful than they are. This requires a resourcefulness and the ability to adapt quickly. The Jews are often criticized for hoarding money. However, saving and being miserly allows a people to live well when times are good, but also when they are not so good. The characters in this book seem to realize that in the end, we are all skin and bones and that wealth can be stripped just as easily as clothes. And remember, mice are not rats, a mistake that the Nazis seem to have made.

The events at Auschwitz (or Maushwitz as it is referred to within the story) are similar to things many humans endure in their own lives. At certain times of our lives we are living well with plenty of food on the table, reliable income and a house filled with people we care about surrounding us. At other times however, everything can get turned on its head and we are tested to the limits of human endurance to keep going. The subtitle of Maus is "A Survivor's Tale". Ultimately, this is why our fathers are so intriguing: They managed to survive dozens of "Auschwitz-like events" and dozens of "Falling Towers". Understanding this helps us forgive their quirks. If you've ever suffered and loved, and lived to tell the tale, Maus.

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