Arts & Letters Daily
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Volume 11, No. 5July/August 2001
MAUS, ART SPIEGELMAN'S Pulitzer Prize-winning comic-book memoir of the Holocaust, has proved a literary sensation in country after country since the first volume was published fifteen years ago. (There have been more than twenty translations.) Until recently, however, one country had been persistently and conspicuously unwilling to embrace the book: Poland, the homeland of Spiegelman's parents and the setting for much of the book's action.
For years, efforts to publish a Polish edition were stymied by the visceral reaction of Polish editors and commentators to what they took as the central scandal of Spiegelman's entire project. Depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats was entirely unobjectionable, they felt, but Poles portrayed as pigs? Impossible! One publisher after another hesitated at the quite real prospect of reader boycotts and protests. Finally, this year, a small Kraków outfit has released a Polish edition of the book. At the behest of Adam Michnik's Gazeta Wyborcza, the country's most widely circulated newspaper, I undertook the interview with Spiegelman that follows.
"There were a few countries whose translations really mattered to me," Spiegelman explained in his SoHo studio, taking a drag on his ever present cigarette. "France, for example, in part because my wife is French and in part because of the long and highly sophisticated tradition of literary comic books over there. And Germany, of course, where the book proved a considerable best-seller and even gets assigned in classes.
"But a Polish publication of the book has all along been particularly important to me becausehow should I say this?well, the kind of ambivalence the Poles feel toward certain aspects of their past is mutual with me and goes back to my earliest memories. As I was being raised in Rego Park, my parents regularly expressed negative feelings about the Poles; but those feelings were regularly being expressed in Polish, so that Polish is really my mother tongue and the comforting lullaby music of my infant life."
But, I asked, what about the issue of having portrayed Poles as pigs? Countless Polish publishers have told me that if the Poles in Maus hadn't been portrayed as pigs, there'd never have been the slightest problem about publishing the book.
"To begin with," Spiegelman said, stiffening slightly, "let's be honest about this: On this particular subject, if there weren't any problem, that would be a problem. Look," he continued, taking another long drag on his cigarette. "For the hundredth time..." He paused, redeploying his thoughts. "I'll tell you a story. Shortly after the first volume of Maus was published here in the United States, I felt the need to visit PolandSosnowiec, Auschwitz, and so forthfor research purposes, to help me visualize the places my father was going to be talking about in the next volume of the book. When he said that he and my mother were stumbling through the streets of Sosnowiec late at night, frantic for shelter.... In my mind a street at night is West Broadway in my SoHo neighborhood, and I needed to see what streets in Sosnowiec actually looked like.
"So I applied for a visathis would have been in 1987and I got a call from the Polish embassy in Washington, asking me to drop by the New York consulate; they were going to be sending someone up from Washington to interview me. The day came, I went up to talk with the guyentirely cordial. He indicated that they would be granting the visa, but he, too, wanted to know, very concerned: Why Poles as pigs?
"My initial reply, I suppose, was a bit facetious: 'At first,' I told him, 'I tried to render Poles as noble stags, but I eventually found it just too hard inking in all those antlers.' But then I went on, trying to explain how in the American cartoon tradition, pigs simply don't carry any particular negative connotation: Porky Pig, for instance, is every bit as cuddly and beloved a figure as Mickey Mouse. Although it wasn't lost on me that as far as my mother and father were concerned, the main thing about pigs is that they weren't kosher. Beyond that, in terms of the narrative conventions of the text, the main thing to be noted about pigs is that they are not part of the book's overriding metaphorical food chain. Pigs don't eat micecats do. Pigs are relatively innocuous as far as mice are concerned.
"The embassy guy nodded politely, but clearly he wasn't buying my explanations. 'Mr. Spiegelman,' he said gravely, at length, 'the thing you don't seem to understand is that in Poland calling someone a swine is a much, much greater insult than seems to be the case here in America. Swine, you see, is what the Nazis called the Poles.'
"'Exactly!' I replied. 'And they called us vermin. That's the whole point.' You see, I didn't make up these metaphors, the Nazis did. I was just trying to explore them, to take them seriously, to unravel and deconstruct them. I must say, I keep waiting for some Pole to take umbrage at the fact that I portray Jews as rodentsI mean, I'm not holding my breath or anything, though it would be nice.
"But actually, it's interesting when you look at those metaphors in the context of the sort of suffering competition that so seems to define Jewish-Polish relations nowadays. Because if you think about the Thousand-Year Reich as a sort of animal farm, to borrow a metaphor, Jews as rodents or vermin were pests to be destroyed and exterminated first thing, indiscriminately, as a matter of course. Whereas Poles as pigs, like all the Slavic races in the entire Nazi conception, while not to be coddled, weren't to be indiscriminately destroyed: They were to be put to use and worked for their meat. Neither status was enviable, but it's a distinction worth noting nevertheless.
"Beyond that, though," Spiegelman went on, "the main thing to ask is that people try to see past those initial metaphors. In terms of the narrative itself, in terms of what actually happened to my mother and father, it's all very complicated: There were pigs who behaved well and pigs who behaved shabbily, just as there were mice who did likewise. I mean, look"he reached for a volume of the American edition, leafing through for a particular page (page 136, as it happened, in the final chapter of part 1)"on this single page, for instance, you've got the entire range of responses: My mother and father are desperately roaming the streets of Sosnowiec, seeking shelter, wearing pig masks, and first they knock on the door of the pig-woman who used to work for them as my brother's nanny, and she slams the door in their face; then they make their way to the home of the pig-man who used to work as the janitor in my mother's father's house, and he offers them shelter in his stable, at great personal risk. Both have pig faces, and yet one behaves with great generosity, while the other, if one wants to be generous about it, behaves out of sheer self-interest. And that's what things were really like."
Pausing, he took another deep drag on his cigarette. "That literal-minded way of thinking can get ridiculous. If Maus is about anything," he concluded, "it's a critique of the limitationsthe sometimes fatal limitationsof the caricaturizing impulse. I did my damnedest not to caricature anybody in this bookand anyone who caricatures my efforts in any other light, I'm sorry, that's their problem, not mine."
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