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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Maus: "Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it"

Continuing on the cartoon and animation theme are these images from the manga, Doubt. It is wonderful the way that visual tropes get poached and translated from one place to another. In yesterday's post, I looked at the use of still photographs in Black Lagoon ( an anime which was heavily influenced by the films of Quention Tarantino, a film maker who was heavily influenced by anime - as well as everything else )  and here you can see a little bit of Guantanamo creeping into the manga action.

The central symbol of Doubt is hanging rabbits. And as soon as you see hanging rabbits, you are absolutely into Art Spiegelman and Maus; the link is inescapable It's how you get from Japanese teen fiction to the Holocaust in one easy step. Such is the magic of the visual world.

Maus is the phenomenal story of Art Spiegelmann's father and the holocaust. But it's also a story about family, relationships and the destruction the Holocaust wrought after the fact. It's a story in which Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs and French as frogs. That notwithstanding, it's a story that Spiegelmann insisted should be filed in the non-fiction section of bookshops. And quite right he was too.

But in Maus, amidst the mice, and the cats and pigs, there are photographs. There are cartoons of photographs and then there are 'real' photographs; three of them. One of Spiegelmann's brother Richelieu (who died before he was born), one of his father, and one of Spiegelmann with his mother.

In Family Frames, Marianne Hirsch writes about how these images ask how 'different media - comics, photographs, narrative, testimony' create multiple voices that may 'definitively eradicate any clear-cut distinction between documentary and aesthetic.'

Maybe, and maybe for Spiegelmann including these images reconstitutes a nuclear family that once was and now is reimagined in a haze of Spiegelmann's  'postmemory' ( that's a memory where the personal and historical overlap).

The top image is of Richeu, the brother Spiegelmann never met. He was poisoned before deportation so 'he wouldn't suffer in the death camps.' The picture is a longing, a memory that isn't, of a being together that never happened. The picture introduces a chapter, it's outside the narrative. It's a stamp of personal sorrow and regret.

The picture of his mother is one of a meeting of histories; Spiegelmann's personal history, that of his family and that of the Holocaust, with the history of his mother smothered; she killed herself in 1968 when Spiegelmann was just out of 3 months in a mental hospital. In the chapter that follows, the mice and cats and pigs of the rest of Maus are replaced by human figures and it's Spiegelmann who is now wearing the camp uniform. He's been transported into the hell that his parents lived through but now it's one of family anguish and guilt with an overlay of the Holocaust to make things even worse.

The picture of his father is a 'souvenir photo'. It shows him after liberation in a borrowed camp uniform provided by the studio where the picture was taken. It's the picture he sent his wife, Anja, to show he survived. He didn't send a picture of himself in civilian clothes, but in camp stripes. But they're souvenir stripes, ironed and clean, and Vladek is full-cheeked and bright eyed. He's showing 'their common past, their survival, perhaps their hope for a future,' says Hirsch. Spiegelman didn't sentimentalise his father in Maus, he portrayed him with all his flaws and in the book stated that he could barely stand to be in the same room as him, so there might be a bit of that coming up in the photograph as well.

"Having a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it," says Spiegelman and the treachery here is the refusal to conform to the idealised view of what a father, a family, a survivor should look like. And it might be that Spiegelman's brutal familial view is slipping into how his father portrait is used in the book. It's another kind of alchemy at play here, one that works at a subconscious level.

The photographs then are fragments, part of the 'testimonial chain' that make us identify with the survivor. And the whole of Maus is made up of framed fragments in 'an aesthetic that is indistinguishable from the documentary.'

But at the same time the photographs jump out of this past/present chain as something that is instantly recognisable as a photograph but at the same time an unfamiliar part of a history 'we cannot assimilate', 'a past that will neither fade away nor be integrated into the present.'

The picture of Spiegelmann's father is also a kind of trophy picture. Vladek is reclaiming himself and is wearing the clean, lice-free skin of the thing that tried to kill him. He's making himself a human again and he's giving the finger to the dehumanisation of those millions that were killed in Auschwitz and in the other campls.

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