Nonfiction — print. Pantheon, 2011. 300 pgs. Library copy.
This companion to Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus contains one long interview with the author addressing the questions he commonly receives about his work – Why the Holocaust? Why mice? Why comics? – and explores the impact the novel has had on those around Spiegelman in a series of smaller, shorter interviews. It also includes an archive of the audio interviews Spiegelman conducted with his father, historical documents he used to supplement the information from his father, and images of his private notebooks and sketches on a DVD.
I picked up this novel because I wanted to know why Spiegelman decided to examine the Holocaust by presenting its Jewish victims as mice, but I probably could have found out the answer via an Internet search faster than it took me to read MetaMaus. He used mice because historically Jews have been depicted as rats in anti-Semitic propaganda, cats because they are typically presented as the inherent predator of mice, and pigs for the Polish people in his book because they were victims of the cats but also victimized the mice. The rest of the world was presented as animals – Brits as fish for fish and chips, Swedes as reindeer – solely because he felt like he could not drop his theme.
The breadth of information covered in this interview is impressive, and I enjoyed learning about the research Spiegelman put into Maus. (I added more than a few books he mentioned during the course of the interview to my to-read list.) It never dawned on me how difficult it would be to accurately depict the visuals of the Holocaust based solely on interviews with a survivor, and Spiegelman spends a significant portion of the book detailing his travels to important places to the narrative such as Auschwitz and the oddity of having such an experience filmed for a documentary.
“One baffling thing I saw on my second trip was one of the wooden barracks in Birkenau; they were originally built for about fifty horses but held up to eight hundred prisoners each. On my first trip I looked for those, and they were all rubble — local Poles had cannibalized most of the wood for heating right after the war, so all that was left were the remains of the stables’ chimneys, marking where each one had been. I didn’t understand how come I hadn’t noticed this building in perfect condition on my first trip, so I asked. Turns out it was a brand-new reconstruction, built as a set for some on-location Holocaust movie and the Polish authorities were happy to leave it standing as part of their museum since it looked so accurate. It was useful for me to able to walk through and photograph it to draw from, but it was also crazy-making: the idea of a Hollywood reconstruction of a death camp eventually replacing the haunted ruins just seemed deeply wrong.” (pg. 56)
Other sections, however, were not nearly as interesting. I imagine it is a rather odd experience being married to or the child of someone so famous, but I skimmed the interviews with his wife and children since they are not why I chose to read this book. It becomes a bit of a chore to read though long passages about the history of comics and the history of Spiegelman’s work in the medium. I’m just not that interested in such topics and, as I said above, the book devotes more time than necessary to answer the admittedly basic questions I had about Spiegelman’s artistic decisions.
I did find the section on the translation of the book into other languages to be very informative. I figured the book would have run into trouble being published in certain places – it has never been published in Arabic – but I thought it would have been more popular in Israel. Yet the second book in the series has never been published there. Spiegelman also explains how he insisted the cover art remain unchanged no matter the language and ran into problems in Germany where the swastika is banned. Eventually, permission was granted for Maus to carry the symbol on its front cover but Spiegelman later saw a documentary of a neo-Nazi with a poster of the book on his bedroom wall as it is (or was?) the only book in the country allowed such imagery and thus the only poster the neo-Nazi could find for purchase. If only he realized.
I did take a cursory look at the accompany DVD and probably would have spent more time with it had it not skipped and crashed as much as it did. So it goes with library books, I suppose.