Friday, March 12, 2010

A Mausterpiece

I have a confession to make. For the last few months, I have been suffering. Suffering from a complete lack of interest in things around me. The scheme and pattern of life seems monotonous, with nary a break in between, to relieve this bored soul. The monotony of daily humdrum grates inside, but there is little to no interest in pursuing a solution for the same.

This extends from (remaining) relationships, interest in the happenings around me (Whoop dee doo! Women have reservation in a parliament that was founded on a bedrock of equality in the first place), movies, music and yes, even books.

A dear friend of mine had mailed me and had asked me what book I was reading at the moment. His question had me stumped, as I was unable to give a definite answer one way or the other. On one hand, I have not been reading the traditional bound books regularly of late. There have a been a couple of wrestling related biographies, two Pynchon novels I am still trying to figure out, and a whole stack of classics that I bought at a good price at the book fair, and which have been gathering dust ( and religiously cleaned) since. But it's not the same sort of reading that I had been erstwhile pursuing in school or college even.

However, there is a caveat. There has been one form of fiction which I have been doggedly pursuing for the last 7 years. That form of fiction usually associated with the younger ones of society. Our first introduction to the world of infinite colours, shapes and lessons in morality, achievement and the maze of relationships that await us in adulthood.


Sure, I follow the mainstream comic arcs like anyone else. I too await with bated breath for the resolution of the Blackest night and welcome the Return of Bruce Wayne. But outside of Marvel and DC, and to some extent Vertigo, I have been spreading my reading list and picking some true gems. Two graphic novels in particular, have made me pause and think and consequently elevate the appreciation I have for comic books.

One of these was the brilliant Aesterios Polyp, which I will write about someday, and the other one is the subject of this blog post.

Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Ever since I read The Watchmen by Alan Moore, I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, comic books could at time push and stretch into the realm of literature. Very few books have generated that kind of a response from me. I felt the same way reading Maus, aware that I held in my hand a piece of work so remarkable and so unlike anything i'd read before, that it was sure to provoke long sessions of introspection in the days ahead.

I have read, heard and watched quite a few material dealing with The Holocaust in my time. I have been horrified and saddened by those stories. But the personal connection just wasn't there. It was like reading about the World wars, looking at the maps, pausing at the fading photos in our history books, before moving onto the cold war period.

But this book! It's not just the metaphorical transformation of Jews into mice, Aryans into Cats, Poles into pigs, Americans into dogs that grabs you. No, what is remarkable is to read about the story within the story that unfolds. Art's battles with his past, his guilt whenever he sees his father, coming to terms with the baggage of his father's survival, the ending of the first part, where his father stands outside the gates of Auschwitz for the first time. Remarkable scenes the sent a shiver down the spine.

It is a relentless merciless tale that pounds you with details of human suffering and indignity. The tragedy in the tale is not just the horrors Art's father survives, but, as another survivor puts it to Art, “It was not the best who died, nor the best who survived. It was random”. No, there are no fairy tale endings here either. We find out that Art's mom, who battles both a frail health, depression as well as oppression, still fails to find an anchor of happiness and succumbs to fatalism. Art's father survives the worst of the war, only to wage another war against loneliness, trying in vain to reconnect with a son who is more interested in his tales of past suffering, but shies away from helping Art out with his present suffering.

Two things that linger on for me. After his father talks about the gas chambers, Art comes out onto the porch with his wife, where they discuss their inability to comprehend the full extent of what his father had endured. A couple of bugs sting them and Art sprays the bugs with pesticide with a nonchalance that the Nazis had in the concentration camps. The other of course is the beautiful way he shows the Mice donning a pig's mask (assuming a polish identity) at various times, to survive in various situations. If there has been a truer depiction of the various garbs we adorn in our lives, I would love to read it.

Maus is work of brutal, honest art. There are images in there that will haunt me forever. It's as much a celebration of survival as it is an exploration of our innate darkness. It is also depressing to realise that a race which has been subject to persecution of the worst kind, today indulges in the same atrocities that were once lent upon them.

Sometimes, literature like this can make elements of nihilism seem very compelling and hard to argue against. Stuff like this can both increase your hope in humanity and decrease your optimism about the future at the same.

After reading Maus, I can no longer feel feel a twinge of embarrassment at revealing what I have been upto. My friend, I read comics. Proudly. And I am not a kid.