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TIMES BOOK PRIZES 1992 : FICTION : On 'Maus II'

November 08, 1992|James Colbert | Colbert is the author of four novels, most recently "All I Have Is Blue." His first nonfiction book, "God Bless the Child," is due in December from Atheneum

There is no question that the story of the Holocaust needs to be told and retold; but a very real danger is that too much retelling creates resentment, more than a barrier to remembering and understanding, a persistent ill will. "Many (younger Germans) have had it up to here with Holocaust stories," Art Spiegelman writes. "These things happened before they were even born. Why should they feel guilty?" Why should any of us feel guilt who, apparently, had nothing to do with the atrocities committed in Hitler's Germany?

But Spiegelman provides the answer to those questions: "I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams." A reality that was, in fact, so terrifying that the worst possible consequence results: Many choose not to address it at all. Of its many extraordinary achievements, perhaps most significant is that by relating a story of hideous inhumanity in non-human terms, "Maus" and "Maus II" allow us as readers to go outside ourselves and to look objectively at ourselves and at otherwise unspeakable events. And while the presentation is enormously effective (and while the events Spiegelman relates are factually accurate, in most ways a memoir), the fact is, too, that these events did not take place among mice, cats and dogs. That is fiction--and it is fiction of the very first order.

"Maus II" is the continuing story of one survivor's tale of Auschwitz and Dachau and of boxcars filled with people and left for weeks. It is the story of a son's search for understanding of events that, inevitably, shaped his life as well. In this story, Jews are drawn as mice, Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs. The pages are divided into captioned, illustrated frames.

It is, indeed, unusual to think of authentic novels as having pictures. The notion is so new that, although comics are an indigenous, truly American art form, we haven't even figured out what to call such works. \o7 Comic book \f7 seems diminutive, even pejorative. A \o7 graphic novel \f7 seems like something Madonna would write. But lest we forget, the \o7 other \f7 definition of novel is "new and not resembling something formerly known or used; original or striking, especially in conception or style." In this regard, there is no doubt that "Maus II" richly deserves this year's prize for \o7 fiction, \f7 a prize that is reserved for the novel--with or without pictures.

Had Spiegelman truly known beforehand the scope of the work he was undertaking, no one could have blamed him if he had simply called it off. The idea of relating a narrative as complex as a son's attempt to unravel his parents' history, to place within that history the son's relationship with his father and to meld the whole into a compelling narrative begets a multilayered task, a tapestry of present and past. Yet in telling his parents' (Vladek's and Anja's) story, Spiegelman is able to convey not only the horrors the survivors endured but also the terrors foisted on the generation that followed.

"I had nightmares," the fictional Artie reveals to his wife, "about S.S. men coming into my class and dragging all us Jewish kids away. . . . Sometimes I'd fantasize Zyklon B coming out of our shower instead of water."

And later, Artie's wife asks him, "What's that noise?"

"Oh, nothing--just Vladek," he replies. "He's moaning in his sleep again. When I was a kid I thought that was the noise \o7 all\f7 grown-ups made while they slept."

In this way, "Maus II" makes the experience resonate and come back to haunt us all. Add to such vignettes a subtle use of language, authentic rhythms and patterns of speech achieved by oddly placed prepositional phrases and modifiers, a keen eye for detail, an astonishing graphic style, and you begin to understand the brilliantly innovative fabric of "Maus II," as deceptively simple as a canon--and no less complex. "Maus II" is an extraordinary accomplishment, a new way of looking at experience. But it comes, too, with knowledge of its own limitations, an ominous warning.

"Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust," Artie's therapist, Dr. Pavel, notes. "What's the point? People haven't changed. . . . Maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust."

For the very last frame of "Maus II," Spiegelman has drawn his parents' tombstone. In one way it is a sad ending, illustrating the inevitability of death no matter the quality of the life or the courage shown; but in another way, for this story it is the only ending possible, for it gives certain proof that the lessons learned \o7 can\f7 survive from one generation to the next. The story will continue to be told. And retold. Each in our own way, we are all survivors of that horror--something we forget at our peril.

FICTION

MAUS II, A SURVIVOR'S TALE: And Here My Troubles Began, \o7 By Art Spiegelman (Pantheon/Schocken)\f7

Finalists

LET THE DEAD BURY THEIR DEAD: And Other Stories, \o7 By Randall Kenan (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)\f7

DAUGHTERS, \o7 By Paule Marshall (Atheneum)\f7

TIME AND TIDE, \o7 By Edna O'Brien (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)\f7

A THOUSAND ACRES, \o7 By Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf)\f7

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