Maus code for Nazis

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Reva Klein reviews Spiegelman's 'comic book' novel of the Holocaust, now on CD-Rom. When Maus was first published in 1986, the public response was mixed. Indeed, from some quarters, it was incredulous. How dare Art Spiegelman adopt a comic book format to tell his father's story of the Holocaust?

Cartoons are suitable for Mickey Mouse, not for conveying the nightmarish realities of the Nazi's annihilation of European Jewry. Partly in reference to Disney's mouse and partly to Hitler's assertion that "the Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human", Spiegelman portrays the Jews as mice (hence "Maus"); the Germans are cats and the Poles pigs.

Despite the early cries of "irreverence", the book was soon acclaimed as an immensely powerful, creative rendering of a story that still defies understanding and still needs to be told.

Maus is the story of Vladek Spiegelman. Born in Czestochowa, Poland, he and his wife survived the war, although their baby first-born son did not. Miraculously, they withstood the appalling privations of first the ghettoes, then Auschwitz and finally the enforced "death march" in the Nazi's desperate bid to elude the approaching Allied liberators.

It is a gripping story in itself, but what sets it apart from the many others is the sub-plot interwoven into the narrative, which focuses on the relationship between Vladek and his cartoonist son, Art.

Humorously, poignantly, subtly, the author presents his father as both a product of his tormented past and as a unique individual. The intimacy with which he does it is full of tenderness, exasperation, hunger and disappointment.

Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, which has been translated and published all over the world. Now Voyager has packaged the book in a CD-Rom edition as The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale. If ever there was a cogent illustration of a CD format enhancing a book, this is it.

The CD contains enlightening background commentary and information as well as the original two-volume work. Highlighting most pages are complementary source materials. The reader can opt to hear an excerpt of the original taped interview of Vladek Spiegelman, the author's father. If you don't happen to have a father who speaks English with a Jewish eastern European accent, hearing old Vladek helps to make sense of Art's verbatim quotes. It's one thing to read Vladek saying, "I don't want you should put these things in your book". But to hear him say it on tape is quite another and more than justifies his son's decision not to clean up his speech.

Also available are examples of the corresponding draft pages, including drawings and text, to allow the reader to see the progression to finished product. There are, for some pages, documentary reference materials, including maps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and photos of family members and relevant locations, and a few home videos of a visit to the camp to illustrate its layout. There are working transcripts of the author's interviews with his father, which the reader can compare with the related text.

But the pice de resistance of all the CD extras is Art Spiegelman's own voice talking about the difficulties of doing what he did: about the compromises inherent in creating a comic based on such complex subject matter, about the difficulties of portraying his father without caricaturising him as "the miserly old Jew". Art's voice comes through the comic, too, expressing his doubts about the book and problems with it to his wife Francoise and to his father, too. It all adds up to a unique publication - the book in its own right as well as the story of the making of the book.

o The Complete Maus on CD-Rom is published by Voyager. Available through Apple dealers and retailers, price Pounds 44 plus VAT from Softline, tel: 081-401 1234

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