Maus, Persepolis, and the Power of Imperfection

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that when I initially tried to read Art Spiegelman’s prize-winning and now best-selling graphic novel Maus, it didn’t land with me. Now, having taught the work to a small group of students, I understand where I went wrong. I went to it looking for the wrong things. If you go to it in search of admirable characters who are thrown into and subsequently purified by desperate situations, you will probably disappointed, as I was, and set the book aside after the first forty pages or so. That is not what Spiegelman is giving us.

What I needed to accept to gain the proper appreciation for the work is that it is, first and foremost, about a son seeking to understand his difficult father by writing down his father’s story of surviving the horrors of the Holocaust — and, in doing so, heal the breach between them. It’s not a tale of reluctant heroes, or of heroes at all. The character at the center of the story, Vladek Spiegelman, is a messy, even downright unlovable human being. In the very first chapter, we see him as a womanizing bachelor nicknamed “the Sheikh” due to his good looks. He strings along a young woman for three to four years without any intention of marrying her, only to dump her unceremoniously when he meets the woman he will make his wife. He asks his interlocutor, his son Art, not to include this story in his book. Art includes it anyway. He isn’t interested in propping up his father as a figure to be admired. If anything, we come away from the book as baffled by Vladek as he is, trying along with him to figure out the mystery of the man.

Vladek is too complicated for us to feel only one way about. On the one hand, he clearly loves his wife, Anja. When she suffers a serious bout of post-partum depression after the birth of their first son, Richieu, he doesn’t hesitate to get her the help she needs. He stays at her side in sickness and in health, at one point talking her back from the point of suicide with the magic of a simple phrase: “I need you.” On the other hand, we see how controlling he sometimes is in his interactions with her. His need to control the narrative is so paramount that after she has succumbed to depression and killed herself, he destroys the journals she kept, journals his son is desperate to see. He has effectively silenced her, and this act prompts his son to condemn him with the very last word of Maus I: My Father Bleeds History — “Murderer.”

Just who is Vladek Spiegelman — murderer? Sheikh? Loving husband? Distant father? The only word I can find for him is human, despite the mouse’s head he wears. Art Spiegelman noted in a 1991 interview that he drew his characters not as anthromorphized animals but as humans wearing animal heads, perhaps to highlight our universal tendency to regard people who differ from us by race, religion, and/or ethnicity as members of a different species from ourselves. Nazi propagandists were fond of comparing Jews to rats, and the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate them shows that idea taken to its “logical extreme.” Yet the figure at the center of Art Spiegelman’s narrative is so thoroughly human, with all the good and bad that implies, that it drives home the horror of all the efforts to reduce him and others like him to a subhuman level. Were he some saintly, too-good-for-this-sinful-earth figure, his story would lose its power.

I’m glad I gave myself another crack at Maus I. Now I’m moving on to Part II.

Also on my syllabus for the same course: Marjane Satrapi’s graphic-novel autobiography Persepolis, another work with a deeply flawed, undeniably human protagonist. This one did land with me the first time I read it. For one thing, I’d seen and liked the film first, so I had a pretty good idea what I was getting. (Spiegelman has stated in interviews that he is determined never to see Maus adapted to film.) Also, the history its first part covers, the overthrow of the Shah of the Iran and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Islamic Republic, was the first big event in international news to capture my attention when I was a child. Satrapi and I are contemporaries. Right away I was primed to relate to her story.

Looking at the two graphic novels with my “teacher’s eye,” I suspect Persepolis is designed to be easier to engage with emotionally, while Maus is more interested in making its readers think. The child-self, “Marji,” to whom Satrapi introduces us in the book’s first half is one of the most beautifully realized girl-children I’ve had the pleasure of reading about, a masterful combination of charm, humor, and terror, making mistakes as children will but making them so adorably that we can’t help rooting for her and then later fearing for her and her family as their world grows steadily darker. Her first big step toward adulthood is poignantly depicted in her bond with her uncle Anoosh, a political dissident, and her grief and anger when he is executed. At the book’s very beginning, Marji aspires to be a prophet — an ambition that results in her mother and father being called in to a parent-teacher conference — and has lengthy conversations with God before settling down to sleep. After Anoosh’s death, she angrily kicks God out of her room, declaring she wants nothing more to do with him. It’s impossible to read this scene without feeling your heart break just a little for her.

Yet Marji, like Vladek, is a complicated human being, as becomes more and more apparent as she heads down the rocky road of adolescence and makes mistake after mistake along the way. At age 14, she’s sent to Vienna in the hope she’ll be safer, only to find herself abandoned by her relatives there. Over the next several pages, we see her make friends only to lose them one after the other and fall in love only to have her heart broken, until at last she finds herself so utterly alone that she returns to Iran, hoping to take refuge in the love of her parents and (awesome) grandmother. But just as her departure for the West fails to bring her the security and freedom she’d hoped, the return home likewise proves disappointing, for she finds herself “a Westerner in Iran and an Iranian in the West,” and she becomes trapped on a roller coaster of depression that Satrapi depicts with disturbing and at times frustrating frankness. We see her get worse, get better, get worse, get better, and then get worse again, culminating in a suicide attempt that she miraculously survives.

The pivotal moment near the book’s end comes when Marjane, now in her early twenties, ventures close to what TV Tropes calls the “moral event horizon, a point of no return beyond which redemption is impossible. She goes out to meet her boyfriend wearing cosmetics forbidden by Iranian law. When she captures the attention of the police, she deflects it by pointing to a man sitting nearby and telling them he spoke indecently to her. As they turn on the man and place him under arrest, she escapes. While she does wonder what will become of him, only when her grandmother rebukes her (yelling at her, as she says, for the first time in her life), does she feel the full weight of shame. This confrontation with the darkness in her own soul moves her to become a better person, to understand who she is and who she might become, and to strengthen her own ethical code. She reclaims her self-esteem and sense of purpose when she challenges a religious speaker at the university she attends, pointing out the massive double standard applied to women and men. As through all her mistakes we’ve never stopped rooting for her, we enjoy a cathartic sense of pride.

March is Women’s History Month. Persepolis, which I appreciated even more upon my second reading, would be an excellent book with which to honor the time.

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