Picks and Pans Review: Maus: a Survivor's Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began
There's a lot wrong with this strange and powerful and crushing book: The drawings are rough, the structure is twisted, the story is unbearably sad. But there is more—far more—that is right. And what is right is so superior, so unerringly true that the issue of technique seems irrelevant.
Once again, Spiegelman uses his stark drawings and cartoon characters to tell what he calls his "autobiographical/biographical" tale. In 1986's Maus (recently reissued as Maus: My Father Bleeds History), Artie relentlessly questions his father, Vladek, a survivor of Auschwilz-Birkenau and Dachau, about his wartime travails. Spiegelman's oblique yet gripping narrative covered Vladek's life in Poland up until he and his wife, Anja, were shipped to a concentration camp. In the sequel, Artie, obsessed with the Holocaust, keeps after his ailing father with a tape recorder. As Vladek speaks, Spiegelman re-creates his ordeals in the death camps and in the heart-wrenching postliberation chaos, panel by agonizing panel. As before, the Jews are mice and the Germans are cats. Even in that choice, there is a world of meaning. Like cats playing with mice, the relationship is doomed.
Nevertheless, it is not only survivors and their haunting baggage that Spiegelman depicts. He tells us about all the woe and misunderstanding between generations. In this story, Artie is enraged and perpetually annoyed by all the demands laid on him by his nagging, skinflint father, a man who holds on to tea bags and saves wooden matches and counts pennies as if they were drops of blood. He finds it difficult to reconcile the fact that this clinging pest is the same man who, as a young, resourceful inmate of Auschwitz, mastered tinsmithing and shoemaking to avoid the ovens and provide food for himself and Anja (who survived, only to commit suicide in 1968) and maintained his sanity and stamina in the last outpost of hell.
As the reader of Maus II discovers, Spiegelman could not totally make peace with his difficult father before the latter died in 1982. But that is precisely what the son achieves on every page of this stunning tribute. (Pantheon, $18)