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'Maus' and 'Persepolis': We are all sentenced to history


I want to explore two graphic novels here: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Well what can I say? I think Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels are the best novels I've read in years. The storytelling -- given the graphic tool --is so fluid. There is an easier focus than what you have to put up with in all that is written textually in filagree. It's drama craft without the characters having to depart stage left (and explain their exit) before the story can proceed.

She -- Satrapi -- is a master of this.

Simple storytelling hones to the essentials. This series is a masterpiece that transcends some of the achievements of Maus that inspired it.

But I can't help comparing the two projects as they are so similar, almost parallel. Religion obviously is a link, but so too is family -- but 'family' in the context of extraordinary events.

The device Art Spiegelman uses in Maus -- in effect, using Disney cartoon tricks to tell a story is so effective that it takes the work some where outside first person reminiscing.

You can't call it 'cute' because as you read, it becomes so natural that these humans masquerade as animals.

While the relations in Maus may cause us to question our humanity -- at its core Spiegelman's story is a homage to his family -- just as Satrapi's is to her's.

If it wasn't for that, these works would lose some of their power. But their strength is that even without these major events holding the characters hostage they'd still work. Both are so brutally intimate, so relentlessly focused on the experience of living -- and surviving -- that you too are transported to the same historical moment and asked to consider: could you do any better?

Neither work is peopled with heroes. Victims abound (and the dead, of course) -- but , ultimately, it all comes down to finding ways to survive, ways to remain sane...in the hope of finding something better for yourself.

The basics rule. It's starker in Maus than in Persepolis but as Bertolt Brecht wrote, "first the belly, then morality".

He could also have said," first the belly and the mind...then morality."

How true is that? And who are we to rule otherwise? Satrapi's irony is that she spends so much time 'off stage'. While the big production number -- the Iranian Revolution -- falls to a deepening reaction -- she's wallowing in self pity and angst in Vienna. In a sense the savage hand of the revolution reaches out to oppress her despite and because of her isolation.

It's the same with Spiegelman's father in Maus. He may have survived Auschwitz but that same dead hand ruled the rest of his life...and Art Spiegelman's apparently.

We are all sentenced to history. We may look upon our version of it as purely biographical but the big picture festers all around us.

[But then I guess I should say that some of us are more sentenced than others. There are  victims  and then there are the lucky ones. Maybe we take it in turns, but some of us are more victimised than others because some of us are more oppressed. ]

Afterward
Survival, as Maus insists, was mainly about pure luck. Humans, esp human Jews, were mere disposable play things. We may not like the father but we cannot hold it against him that he survived the camps.

First survival, then morality.

That said there is a celebration inherent in surviving the Holocaust which is deployed as an underpinning for the state of Israel. Maus doesn't do that . It's not Zionist at all. So it's not fair to mix the perspectives up.

Even in the comic it's clear that Jews who survived the camps were not guaranteed easy refugee status.

Then there is the complication of judging 'survival' by any means necessary...

Well there is some interestring stories in that light -- Empire of the Sun, King Rat ..come to mind. Survival has its own rewards and tragically the American take on the Ethics of it where all the good guys make it is a total fantasy. The world ain't like that. Nor does it follow that the 'bad' survive instead.



 

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