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Character analysis: Vladek from Maus I and II Art Spiegelman's two-volume narrative Maus is a Holocaust survivor's tale as told to a son who wants to record his father's story in a book with the hope that this effort will lead to acknowledgement by his father. In the course of the father's, Vladek Spiegelman's narrative, Artie Spiegelman reveals through words and behavior what it means to be a survivor's child. Stories of survivors are generally classified as testimonies; Vladek's narrative has also been defined as such. In his discussion of the literary origins of testimony, James Young points out that the traditional definition of testimony is "intricately tied into the legal process of establishing evidence in order to achieve justice" and is founded in rabbinical law of Leviticus 5: 1: "And he is a witness whether he has seen or known of it; if he does not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity." Vladek, however, does not "go public" with his narrative; Artie does, but Artie is not a rabbi, a judge, a therapist, neither is he the community -- he is the child of a survivor of iniquity and as a child he has, in this context, no authority. (Spiegelman, 1991). Spiegelman comments that he "felt he was taking a deposition, " (CD-ROM Maus II 159) as Vladek spoke into the tape recorder. If a deposition is a testifying under oath that is recorded for eventual use in court, then, such use and judgment are here indefinitely deferred.
It is personal history which determines the relationship between Artie and Vladek. In Funny Animals Art Spiegelman depicted a cozy Father Mouse telling his son Mickey bedtime stories of Auschwitz; the adult, then, knows what would get the parent to talk to him. The artist, however, gives Vladek's story existence. Maus is an autobiography that embeds as the master narrative Vladek Spiegelman's story of surviving the Holocaust.
The father's master narrative is so intense and dominant that we forget what Make Bal calls "the fault of the primary narrative", namely Artie's struggle for acknowledgement of his trauma as a child of Holocaust survivors. Vladek and his story marginalize Artie into insignificance. Artie Spiegelman, the narrator and the second self of the author, is not only the child of Holocaust survivors, he is also a substitution for his dead older brother, Richieu. Vladek never acknowledges that it may have been difficult for Artie to be a child of survivors! By appropriating his father's story within the frame of his own story, he writes and draws Vladek's ordeal into permanent existence, but he himself is at the end psychologically and literally unacknowledged and orphaned. (Langer, 1991). His placement of the story in the infantile and subversive genre of a comic book in the underground commixes tradition point to unresolved childhood issues of Artie/Art.
He wants to hear his parents's tory so that he can understand what orphaned him, but he is not granted such an understanding. The penultimate panel of Maus II makes it clear that Vladek told "survival in Auschwitz" as a bedtime story to the non-existent brother "'I'm tired from talking, Richieu, and it's enough stories for now... '" (II 136). Artie is the odd child out. The sequence of the text of Vladek's story follows the convention of Holocaust narratives, based, as they are, on the historical pattern of events. However, by repeatedly highlighting his resourcefulness and survival skills, Vladek emerges, if not as a hero, then as a man of a highly developed practical intelligence who authenticates his narrative with blueprints and maps for the enlightenment and instruction of his listeners.
He has come to believe that he survived because of these skills. But Vladek does not ever tell how he felt during and after the Holocaust; he denies feeling, and that may have been one of his crucial failings in his relation with Anja. It is, therefore, significant that Artie asks his psychotherapist, who is also a survivor: "'I can't begin to imagine what Auschwitz felt like. "' The therapist replies: "'What it felt like? Hmm, how can I explain?
Boo!" ' (II 46) Wide-eyed and startled, Artie levitates in the analyst's chair where he has shrunk to the stature of a little kid with a mouse mask. The therapist's "Auschwitz as Kinderschreck" or bogeyman communicates to the narrator that the camp demanded of the victim an intensely conscious alertness at all times: a poised state of perpetual terror. As nano-narrative, however, the scare expletive is also insufficient. (Spiegelman, 1991). The subtitles of both volumes - Maus I: A Survivor's Tale - My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: A Survivor's Tale - And here My Troubles Began (From Auschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond) - show the complicated relationship between history, Vladek's narrative and Artie as the listener-son.
Vladek bleeds history not only in the sense of a possibly therapeutic bloodletting of his experiences, but in the continuous seepage of repressed and displaced memories that affected Artie every day of his childhood. We might add here that in comic book parlance "to bleed" means to extend a drawing beyond the confines of lines that frame a panel. The blood of memory of the experience in traumatic history cannot be contained and its seepage is contagious. The father's wound is internal and unhealed. The subtitles to Maus II can signify the continuation of the story after Maus I where Vladek and Anja arrive at the gate of Auschwitz as well as to the troubles that pursued Vladek ever since.
For Artie, too, the troubles began with Auschwitz. The seepage of those experiences will be a continual subtext in his life that affects him during summer retreats and beyond. No stories can cure the unhealed wounds in father and son. At best, the teller can say "it's enough stories for now ", implying repeated telling's over the ground of deprivation that defines the heartless center of the Holocaust. In Maus this is graphically projected by Vladek sitting on his exercycle and telling his story while accelerating his heartbeat. (Wolfgang, 1993). Though Vladek's is the master narrative in Artie's life and work, other stories are also possible, and these may provide counter-memories to Vladek's official tale.
Mala, Vladek's second wife, is also a survivor and so is the therapist. But the most significant story for Artie would be that of Anja, his mother. When Vladek admits to burning Anja's journals, her counter-memory becomes a blank filled by Vladek's memory. (Langer, 1991). When Artie insists on seeing his mother's narrative, which would, by the very fact that it is written, have greater authority than his father's oral discourse, Vladek, who collects and hoards things out of necessity and habit, admits that he burned the diaries when he had a "bad day": "'After Anja had died I had to make order with everything...
these papers had too many memories. So I burned them"' (I 159). Vladek denies Anja self-definition, except as he shapes his memory of her. After she kills herself, he annihilates her written word and thus commits the "murder" of which Artie accuses him. Spiegelman recognized "'that he'd destroyed that journal of hers... meant that the story forcibly became increasingly his story'." The "burning of the text" creates a blank that provides Artie with a ground on which to project the possibilities of answers that may have assuaged his own guilt feeling.
Artie tries occasionally to deconstruct the reliability of Vladek's narrative. For example, when Vladek says that Richieu was a big baby weighing three kilos at birth, Artie questions, "'If you were married in February, and Richieu was born in October, was he premature?' " Vladek, hesitatingly answers "'Yes, a little'" and immediately swerves to Artie's birth: "'But you -- after the war, when you were born - it was very premature. The doctors thought you wouldn't live'" (I 30). Since Vladek at this point has already told the story about Anja's friendship with a young communist, the question of paternity insinuates itself and could be supported by the events of Vladek's courtship of Anja.
Graphics, too, can provide a commentary that counters Vladek's story. For instance, Artie as an obnoxious brat at the dinner table depicts Richieu, idolized by his parents, where he overturns his dinner plate while the adults are discussing the increasingly difficult economic situation (I 75). During the Holocaust a child had to grow up fast for the sake of survival. The child had to be able to use duplicity consciously or to "pass" as older than he or she was in order to be defined as "workable" in Auschwitz. "The destruction of childhood, " writes Naomi Sokol off, "the need to grow up prematurely, and the clouding of boundaries between childhood and maturity are themes that surface in Holocaust literature for adults and for juvenile audiences, as well as in the writing of children authors... to convey a childhood which -- shaped by violence -- was not a childhood." At age fifteen Elie Wiesel, for example, is able to "pass" as adult in Auschwitz and develops with his father a relationship that truly has shared adulthood in the nightmare of history (Night). Such a relationship is not possible between Artie and Vladek; Artie has neither the authority of the law nor the authority of experience.
We can also argue that Vladek's private testimony to his unauthorized child does not fulfill the rabbinical law in Leviticus. The attitudes of Artie Spiegelman in Maus are those of a rebellious and self-pitying child who is occasionally eager to please and is, almost consistently, depressed. Behind this self imaging there lurks that feeling of abandonment and emptiness characteristic of the unacknowledged gifted child described by Alice Miller: "They all developed the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can only experience his feelings when there is somebody there who accepts him fully, understands and supports him." (Wolfgang, 1993). It is perhaps significant that, aside from the Rego Park incident in the epigraph, no event from Artie's childhood intrudes upon the narrative.
The epigraph is outside the main narrative frame and yet it is the crucial incident that projects Artie's problematical relation to his father. Spiegelman presents this incident of emotional abandonment without commentary. When the ten year old loses his roller skate, his friends abandon him with laughter. Artie runs crying to his father, not because he fell but because he is diverted. Vladek, usefully employed with some carpentry, immediately engages Artie in holding the board, even as he asks, "Why do you cry, Artie? Hold on better to the wood. " He is not interested in Artie, but in his task at hand.
When Artie complains that his friends skated away without him, the word friends triggers Vladek's memory that friends are an impossibility: "'If you lock them together in a room for a week... '" - and, ballooning out in the last panel -"'Then you should see what is, friends. '" Vladek hovers over little Artie, one knee on the work bench, while Artie is cowed and looks up submissively, fearful of his father and the hostile and friendless world. Artie's physical stature dishes as the epigraph progresses and he is overshadowed by his father. This crucial childhood memory imprints on the narrator not only that friends are unreliable, but also that his pains are unimportant and that he is insignificant in relation to Vladek and his story. (Young, 1988). Words: 1, 882. Bibliography: Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, vols. 1 and 2 (New York: Pantheon, 1991), 1: 23. James Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 24.
Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991). Wolfgang Is, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 3, 297.
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