The harrowing tales of anthropomorphic mice

When I was about Anne Frank’s age, I read her diary.

Anne kept a diary all through the time she hid in The Secret Annex with her family. She wrote everything that any person under more normal circumstances would write of – books, sex, food, parents, the news. While this makes her diary easy to relate to, it also reminds us of a childhood that was destroyed by the Holocaust. They were discovered and sent away to concentration camps. Her father, Otto Frank was the only survivor. Anne wanted to be a writer, and so he published her diaries.

The world shifted a bit after I read Anne Frank’s diary. There was a before and after. After, I knew of the horrors that people subjected other people to.

More recently, I read Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that talks about his parents’ experiences as Polish Jews during the second World War – the rights that were snatched away slowly at first, the dehumanization and torture, Auschwitz and finally their departure to the United States. They survived the Holocaust, but did they really? They were broken in countless ways.

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In the novel, Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats, possibly taking from Hitler’s own propaganda about how Jews weren’t fully human somehow. The anthropomorphic characters allow us to distance ourselves from the events, which are too horrific for even the most gruesome imagination. I do not know how the author found in him the courage to create this work of art, which is beautiful and terrible all at once.

The storytelling is straightforward, and Spiegelman does not try to portray his father, Vladek, as a hero for surviving. He survived through a combination of extraordinary resourcefulness, and a luck that managed to keep him alive even when circumstances conspired against him. Vladek comes across as a neurotic and racist Jewish man, difficult to live with, haunted by the things he has been made to see.

There isn’t much I can say about Maus that hasn’t already been said. Comics are often considered frivolous, something to look at distractedly over the rim of your coffee mug. But I have learnt that comics can also talk about ‘serious’ things, without trivializing them. They can bring to us stories we might not want to discover, if in another medium.

Maus made me cry.

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