I have been introducing some books that had been considered by our Book Club over the last couple of issues, and they were of starkly different styles. To continue that theme this month I want to talk about a recent book nominated by one of our members, which he did so with some trepidation. The reason for his concern was the format of the book. Books like this used to be called “comic books” and I read many when I was younger. However, these days they are called “graphic novels”. I’m not sure what the difference is but for the purposes of this article it doesn’t matter. There are some members of our club that admitted that they had never read a comic or graphic novel. They didn’t think this was unusual, and thought that everyone grew up in families where comics were banned. I don’t know who they thought read comics because they knew they existed and were readily available, and new additions were coming out all the time. Nevertheless, they were ignorant of the format, supposedly because nothing worthwhile could be contained in a seemingly trivial format, fit for people that can’t read.
But this book MAUS 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (Penguin) changed many of their minds. Art Spiegelman is the son of Holocaust survivors Vladeck and Anja who went to live in America after the War, Anja subsequently committed suicide when Art was a young child, and Art has had mental health issues as a result. Vladeck has since remarried and Art spends time with his father to find out about what happened during the War and Hitler’s Final Solution with the Jews.
So this graphic novel tells of Art’s trials and tribulations in trying to extract the story from his father. The story is quite horrific and his family were extremely lucky to survive, although not all of them did, because Art’s older brother was sent away “to be safe” and ended up one of the early casualties of the gas ovens. But the grim tale is interspersed with the contemporaneous discussions Art has with his father, and these are very funny and oddly heart-warming. Vladeck can be an exasperating person, and he certainly matches all the stereotypes we know of Jewish people, but he has been through unimaginable challenges and personal losses and this has formed his world view. But I have met many people that survived through the recession and the World Wars and they all have the same careful approach to money and life, because they have seen both taken away too easily.
Art depicts the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Poles as pigs, and the drawings are not great, but this doesn’t detract from the book too much. However, many people didn’t like the depictions and found them racist. I’m not inclined to agree after reading the book, and I think anyone who reads it will come to the same conclusion.
Overall the consensus of the group was positive, so new ground was broken in the club. I’m not sure there will be too many more for a while but it has opened up many of us to a new form of reading.