A Review of Katherine Mansfield’s “Short Stories”

KatheMansfield1rine Mansfield is one of the accomplished masters of that most difficult of literary forms – the short story. Almost all of the 21 stories in this collection are outstanding examples of her art.

Mansfield is labelled as a modernist writer: her stories do not follow the classic narrative structure of a beginning, middle and end many a time. Sometimes, they do not tell a story in the traditional sense at all. They are, rather, mirrors held up to the nature of her characters – mostly young women – and an incident or incidents which illuminate the soul of the protagonist. There is humour, often of a sarcastic variety, but mostly sympathetic. Sometimes, it transforms into the dark variety – and occasionally into total darkness. Katherine Mansfield is where Jane Austen meets Emily Bronte.

Of the stories in the current collection, one common theme may be seen to be pervasive – the difficulty for a woman in finding fulfillment. In The Tiredness of Rosabel, the first story in the volume, the heroine dreams of a life outside her mundane job in a hat shop, with a glamourous customer: of course, she is prudent to restrict her longings to her active imagination. In The Swing of the Pendulum, Viola takes it one step further to flirting with a man caller – and pays the price by inviting an unwanted sexual advance. In the long stories Prelude and its continuation At the Bay, the unfulfilled Beryl also flirts with life… and finds an unwelcome caller. In The Little Governess, this theme is taken to its logical extreme, ending with the protagonist’s life in a shambles – even though she is not physically violated, her psyche, reputation and future is scarred for life.

Katherine Mansfield, extremely daring and unconventional herself, has no illusions about woman’s lot in life. She can choose to be man’s possession, moving about in the constrained space allotted to her by society (the tale of two spinsters, left rudderless at the death of their tyrannical father in Daughters of the Late Colonel – often touted as Mansfield’s finest story – shows the plight of such women when the man in their life disappears), or she can go out and become “bad”. Both are equally undesirable. It is this tension that constantly colours her stories, and make them walk the tightrope between humour and horror.

Though most of the tales are set in Europe, among “civilised” folk, a couple are set in New Zealand and show a different face of the author. Both these stories (Millie and The Woman in the Store) inhabit a more primal and violent world than the chaste drawing rooms of the continent, and the themes are also darker. Mansfield has captured this atmosphere beautifully in a sentence in the latter story:

There is no twilight in our New Zealand days, but a curious half-hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw.

It is this half-light which illuminates this story – the light which is kept at bay in the brilliantly lit interiors of her other stories. But it is always there, promising to show us the bloodthirsty yakshi hidden behind the beautiful visage of a nubile young woman. And that is why this is my most favourite story in the book: here the author casts away her refined aura, and enters into the truly wild spirit of her native country – the spirit of the wanton woman.


A Review of “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Howindex do you read a book?

Look at the cover, probably glance at the blurb; run your eye down the table of contents, perhaps; possibly rifle through the book… then plunge right in into Chapter One.


Wrong! According to Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, the authors of How to Read a Book.

According to them, this is only the first level of reading, called “Elementary” reading: and this is the only level the majority of readers in this world have reached. They posit three more levels: “Inspectional”, “Analytical” and “Syntopic”, each one more advanced than the previous. The major portion of the book is devoted to analytic reading, followed by brief exposition on the syntopic. It is the aim of the authors to make each reader of this tome into an analytic reader at least, if not a syntopic one: it is my opinion that they only succeed partially, but let’s go into that after analysing each of the levels as defined by the authors.

Elementary reading we have already seen. In inspectional reading, you first skim the book as a whole; give it a “once-over”, as it is. The authors, ever practical, suggest six steps to do this – most of them self-evident and what any serious reader usually does with an expository book (this book is mostly about reading expository material and of limited value in reading literature and poetry, but more about that later). The steps are:

1. Read the title and the preface
2. Study the table of contents
3. Check the index
4. Read the blurb
5. Look at the main chapters
6. Skim the book, reading it here and there

Next, read the book through fast, without getting stuck at the difficult places. If the book deserves our serious attention, we can come back to those difficult places in our next reading. The advantage of this “rapid-fire” approach is that we do not waste time on a book which deserves only a superficial reading. In the authors’ own words: “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.”

Analytical Reading

The next level, analytical reading, requires the reader to be demanding: the more you demand, the more you can extract out of a book. To do this, one has to ask four questions:

1. What is the book about, as a whole?
2. What is being said in detail, and how?
3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
4. What of it?

How ask these four questions is explained in detail, in the remaining part of the book.

Analytical reading has three stages. The first one is mainly concerned with classifying the book, and understanding its aim and structure. To do this, the authors suggest four rules.

1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

2. State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

3. Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organised into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.

4. Find out what the author’s problems were.

The first rule classifies (“pigeonholes”) the book, by affixing it to a category, genre, etc.: the second is used to create a précis: the third expands the précis into an outline, thus revealing the underlying structure (“X-Raying” the book, as the authors name it) and the fourth defines the purpose of the book. The author presumably wrote it for a reason: he had some questions at the beginning, which he has presumably tried to answer through the book. The reader has to find out what these questions are.

If the first stage of analytical reading is related to the what , the second is related to the how ; how has the author attempted to solve the problem with which he started out. For this stage also, Adler and Van Doren proposes four rules.

1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

2. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

3. Know the author’s arguments by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not: and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

The argument here that any author, putting forth an argument, will use certain key words and terms (for example “natural selection” and “evolution” by Darwin in The Origin of Species). It is the reader’s duty to come to terms with the author, so that he does not misinterpret the author’s intentions by misreading the terms. Then on, it is an exercise in logic by understanding the propositions and arguments. This is not as difficult as it looks: in fact, we do it all the time, even though the exact logical terms may be unfamiliar to us. A proposition is nothing but the meaning contained within a declarative sentence: and arguments what the author uses to prove the truth of the proposition.

The fourth step is a little more difficult for the lay reader, and it will only come through practice. One needs to find out which of the problems presented the author had been able to solve: and if he had been unable to solve some, whether he knew he had failed or not. At this point of time, it is not important whether the reader agrees with the author. That comes later. Here, we are talking about the author’s own internal logic, and how far he has been able to present his arguments consistently in light of it, and how far he has been in successfully concluding his arguments.

In the third stage of analytical reading, the reader, for the first time, starts to apply his critical senses and begins to agree or disagree with the author. Here according to the authors of the current book, the reader has to follow certain etiquette, captured in the following three rules:

1. Do not begin criticism until one has completed the outline (first stage) and interpretation (second stage). Then one can agree, disagree or suspend judgement.

2. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. Or in plain words, unless one can present factual evidence acceptable at least to oneself, disagreement with an author based on emotional prejudice should be avoided (easier said than done!).

3. Demonstrate that one knows the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgement one makes.

The authors also provide special criteria for criticism: (1) show where the author is uninformed, (2) show where he is misinformed, (3) show where his illogical and (4) show where his analysis is incomplete.

Syntopic Reading

This is the fourth (and most advanced) level of reading, according to Adler and Van Doren – though I’d perhaps disagree. Here, the reader is engaged in researching books about one basic idea. For example, if you want to read up on, say evolution, you must first understand what the significant books are on the subject: then you must proceed to read them, and summarise the arguments, both pro and con, preferably remaining objective throughout. Phew! Not a very easy task.

Don’t worry, the authors give step-by-step instructions for this level also. First, create a bibliography of the subject and inspect all of the books to ascertain which are the relevant ones: then, do the following:

1. Do inspectional reading of the selected book to choose the passages which are most relevant to the subject at hand;

2. Establish a neutral terminology which is applicable to all the authors, so that all of them can be brought to the same terms;

3. Establish a set of neutral propositions, by framing a set of questions which all the authors can be seen as answering;

4. Range the answers on both sides of the issue. The issue may not always explicitly exist, and may have to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views (for example, in the case of evolutionary theory, “Intelligent Design” is a form of creationism even though the trappings of evolutionary theory are used);

5. Analyse the discussion by ordering the issues to throw maximum light on the subject.

The authors stress the need for dialectical objectivity throughout; that is, the reader is only expected to arrange and present the arguments so as to present an ordered discussion without taking sides. So the aim of syntopical reading is to “clear away the deadwood and prepare the way for an original thinker to make a breakthrough”.


Whoever has read through this review so far would be asking (him/her)self: “But that’s applicable to expository books, where the main aim is the dissemination of information? What about fiction? What about poetry? What about drama?” Well, the authors extend their methodology to all kinds of books, but according to me, it falls flat. All said and done, the methodology works only for expository works. And that is its main problem.

This book is not about literary theory or criticism: nor is it about literature appreciation. It is a self-help book on the lines of those on time management, attending interviews, etc. It outlines a methodology, the diligent following of which will guarantee results, according to its authors. It well may, for the major part of the book devoted to analytical reading gave me some insights on how to tackle books on difficult subjects like philosophy and political theory (the two stars are for that). But the book is extremely boring, and the authors’ insistence on applying their favourite methodology to all sorts of books was stretching things a bit (moreover, it takes all the fun out of reading!). And syntopic reading may make sense to an undergraduate preparing a dissertation, but is of little use to anybody else.

If anyone wants to read this book, I would recommend an inspectional reading concentrating mainly on the methodology of analytical reading only. The other parts are not worth the time spent on it.

I purchased a copy, but the book seems to be available free on the net (no idea about copyright issues!), so go ahead and try it if you want. Statutory warning: boredom ahead.

Laughing in the Face of Death – A Review of “Dead Funny” by Rudolph Herzog

I came across this book serendipitously. A few months back, there was a debate raging on GR (even now going on with reduced decibel levels) that whether anyone should be allowed to satirise Hitler. This was triggered by the publication of Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. One member, without even reading the book, effectively cursed all the people who would read this book and post a positive review about it.

I was intrigued. Being a person who finds humour in everything, I was surprised that someone could take such an extreme view. Then I found that she was not alone in her views; for many people, the Holocaust was a tragedy which cannot be compared to anything which came before and after, and Hitler was an evil beyond description, which should not be analysed or interpreted, just condemned. As far as I was concerned, this was pure poppycock. Hitler was a dictator who committed genocide to a previously unprecedented level, and I would not choose him as a dinner companion – but he was human, just like you and me.

So I embarked on a journey to discover Hitler and the Third Reich in general, and came across a reference to this book in one of the discussions. Immediately, I decided that it was a must-read. Thankfully, I could find a copy online.


This is not just a history of humour in the Reich, though it is that too. Herzog traces the evolution of political humour and satire in Germany during Hitler’s ascent, reign, decline and demise: and in the process, asks some relevant questions.

IS IT PERMISSIBLE to laugh at Hitler? This is a question that is often debated in Germany, where, seeing the magnitude of the horrors the Third Reich committed in their name, many citizens still have difficulty taking a satirical look at it. And when others dare to do precisely that, they are accused of trivializing the Holocaust. Nonetheless, German humorists are always trying to tackle this most sensitive of topics, and jokes at the expense of the Nazis are at their most powerful and revealing when they are spoken in the economical, matter-of-course tone of the satirist.

Is it legitimate to approach Auschwitz using techniques of satire, or would doing so downplay crimes so monstrous that they can hardly be put into words? Whatever one’s answer to this question, the fact is that Germans have always laughed at Hitler, even during the twelve years of his terrifying reign.

Yes, the Germans have always laughed.


Political humour existed in Germany for a long time. The first German adventure novel, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, follows the exploits of a simple shepherd in the devastated and lawless landscape of Europe after the Thirty Years’ War. The horrors that Simplicius sees, Herzog writes, is described in language that is “cheerful and disarmingly ironic”. To quote from the book:

At first glance a novel featuring a rogue hero but really about a decades long bloodbath may itself seem like a bizarre idea. Why didn’t Grimmelshausen just write a chronicle of events? The message of Simplicissimus is that fear and terror are only half as bad when one can laugh in their face.
Ironically, the tradition of the German novel begins with the sort of humor that still occasions controversy today, when people try to treat Hitler comically. Yet the truth is that terrible events seem to call for humor. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, humor often appears as the only effective antidote against lingering horror. One could cite dozens of examples of how the deepest human abysses make people laugh.

Herzog says the same black humour can be found in Jewish jokes, who may have found the strength to tolerate their unbearable situation by laughing at it.

A Swiss visiting a Jewish friend in the Third Reich asks him: “So how do you feel under the Nazis?” He answers: “Like a tapeworm. Every day, I wriggle my way through a mass of brown stuff and wait to be excreted.”

Two Jews are waiting to face a firing squad, when the news arrives that they are to be hanged instead. One turns to the other and says: “You see—they’ve run out of ammunition!”

The second joke, when Germany had its back to the wall during the war and Hitler was trying to finish off all the Jews as quickly as possible, made me laugh out loud and brought tears to my eyes at the same time.

Up until the Reichstag fire, the Nazis were not seen as the dangers to society they were, and consequently the butt of many political jokes, albeit in a good-natured way. Hitler’s over-the-top rhetoric and shameless posturing was especially suited for satire.

Some of the Hitler jokes (one of which was popular even in my schooldays) show an extremely irreverent approach:

Hitler visits a lunatic asylum, where the patients all dutifully perform the German salute. Suddenly, Hitler sees one man whose arm is not raised. “Why don’t you greet me the same way as everyone else,” he hisses. The man answers: “My Führer, I’m an orderly, not a madman!”

Tünnes and Schäl are walking across a cow pasture, when Tünnes steps in a mound of cowshit and almost falls down. Immediately he raises his right arm and yells, “Heil Hitler!” “Are you crazy?” asks Schäl. “What are you doing? There’s no one else around here.” “I’m following regulations,” Tünnes answers. “Whenever you step into anywhere, you’re supposed to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ ”

A drunkard passes a vendor on the street who is crying, “Heilkräuter!”(“Medicinal herbs!”). “Heil Kräuter?” he ponders. “We must have a new government.”

It seems that the Nazi leadership did not crack down on the jokers in the initial phases of the consolidation of power. In fact, they even promoted it to a certain extent, to make a show of the liberal nature of the government. One interesting case in point is the publication of a book of anti-Hitler caricatures, edited by Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the Nazi responsible for dealing with the foreign press. Hanfstaengl published the cartoons with explanatory notes to show how the foreign press was “maligning” the beloved Fuhrer.

One has to understand there was an even more ludicrous entity to be made fun of in Germany – the ineffective Weimar democracy. Many people saw Hitler’s assumption of power as a good thing, something to bring the broken nation back to its feet. And jokes at the expense of the Weimar government were welcome to the Nazis.

There were many artists and intellectuals who were fans of the Nazi government. The Munich cabaret performer and early Nazi sympathizer Weiß Ferdl, for example, wrote a song praising Nazification and comparing it to the Nazi campaigns against jazz and other forms of “nigger music.” He wrote a song, in all seriousness, about how Hitler has brought all supposedly degenerate elements “into line”. (Sadly, we can see this attitude among many people in modern democracies too: people don’t understand how valuable freedom is until they lose it.)

Nazis also used humour to their advantage by encouraging the creation of slapstick without any satirical content, and by encouraging offensive and tasteless anti-Jew jokes which nobody would find funny today (to be frank, I find many similarities among these jokes and present-day political jokes targeting Muslims). People, in their need to vent off frustration, must have laughed at these – it must have helped satisfy their hidden anti-Semitic urges also.

However, those comedians who refused to toe the Party line soon fell out of favour. The creation of the Reich Chamber of Culture which was affiliated to Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, which required any artist, writer or actor who wanted to work in Germany to join it effectively killed all creative protest, by ensuring that they would get no work. Also, acts of active persecution like book burnings, the jailing of artists and writers etc. started in right earnest, supported by intellectuals like Ferdl.

The German cabaret, however, decided not to sit idle – and it is this entity which has the longest comic (and tragic!) history under the Reich.


The cabaret had a long history of satirical humour, and they lampooned everybody mercilessly, including the Nazis. The story of Werner Finck is a case in point. This courageous comedian kept on lampooning the Nazis under their very own noses, and was tolerated for a surprisingly long time. Herzog quotes the following verses, built on Nazi slogans but cleverly putting them on their head:

                         Werner Finck

A fresh wind is blowing
We want to laugh again
Humor, awaken!
We’ll give you free rein.

While the lion is crowned
And Mars rules the hour
Good cheer, which we all love,
Is slowly turning sour.

Let’s not allow the devil
Or any other powers
To rob us of the fun
That is rightfully ours.

Let the power of words
Vibrate the eardrums
And if anyone objects, he can
Kiss us on our bums.

Finck was ultimately arrested and sent to a concentration camp. However, his relative popularity helped spare him the guards’ brutality. Finck managed to keep his humour alive even within the camp, and Herzog quotes the following lines from an evening’s entertainment he managed to put up there:

Comrades, we are going to try to cheer you up, and our sense of humor will help us in this endeavor, although the phrase gallows humor has never seemed so logical and appropriate. The external circumstances are exactly in our favor. We need only to take a look at the barbed wire fences, so high and full of electricity. Just like your expectations.

And then there are the watchtowers that monitor our every move. The guards have machine guns. But machine guns won’t intimidate us, comrades. They just have barrels of guns, whereas we are going to have barrels of laughs.

You may be surprised at how upbeat and cheerful we are. Well, comrades, there are good reasons for this. It’s been a long time since we were in Berlin. But every time we appeared there, we felt very uneasy. We were afraid we’d get sent to the concentration camps. Now that fear is gone. We’re already here.

(I find this equivalent to the story of the Jester who was sentenced to be hanged for making puns. Reprieved at the last minute on the condition that he will pun no more, he cannot pass up the chance to say “No noose is good news!” and is immediately hanged. You can’t keep the wisecrackers down!)

Many of the cabaret performers migrated to Austria, among them Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. Their cabaret house, known as the “Pepper Mill”, subjected the Nazi regime to scathing criticism, using the medium of metaphors and allusions. The following lines from Erika, which are transparently about Hitler, illustrate the point:

I am the prince of the land of lies
I can lie to shake the trees
Good lord, am I a skillful liar!
No one lies so brilliantly.

I lie so inventively
That the blue falls from the sky
See lies flying through the air
That lying gale’s source am I.

Now summer is a-comin’ in
And the trees are all in bud
The field are full of violets
And war does not shed blood.

Ha, ha. You fell for it.
In your faces I can read it.
Although it was completely false,
Every one of you believed it.

Lying is nice
Lying is fine
Lying brings luck
Lying bucks you up.
Lying has lovely long legs.
Lies make you rich
Lies are well-stitched
Seem like they’re true
Wash sin from you
And follow on a leash like dogs.

Back in my home, the land of lies,
The truth must remain unspoken.
A colorful web of lying strands
Keeps our great Empire unbroken.

We have it good, we have it nice
We kill all our enemies
And award ourselves the highest device
Of honor for our false glories.

Once a liar, nevermore trusted;
Always a liar, always believed!
That he speaks anything but truth
Is an utterly intolerable idea.

Lying is easy
Everything’s grand
If you can do it,
False means to our end.
To the land of lies
Lying brings fame
Lies are colorful and elegant
While gray truth looks always the same.

In order to protect my land
I mix the poison and set the fires
If you doubt me, I’ll shut you up,
I, the prince of the land of lies.

                             Kurt Gerron

This is only an example: there were many others who were equally vitriolic. However, as Hitler increased his geographic spread, there was nowhere for the satirists to run to, and criticism within the Reich stopped.

The most tragic fate befell the Jewish comedians, who could not even escape by toeing the Nazi line. The case of Kurt Gerron is illustrative. Gerron tried to escape the horror by emigrating; but he was ultimately captured and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic. The Nazis used to use this ghetto to fool the Danish Red Cross workers into thinking that the Jews were getting humane treatment. So, immediately ahead of a visit from them, the camp commandants would ship off large numbers of inmates to Auschwitz, set up temporary facades of coffee-shops and theatres, and the prisoners would be ordered to stage operas.

Gerron was forced to form a cabaret inside the ghetto with fellow Jewish performers waiting for deportation to the gas chambers, and perform for the benefit of fellow inmates and camp officers – not only when the Red Cross visited, but whenever the sadistic Nazis were in mood for entertainment. (He was once even forced to perform in an area in which dead corpses had been piled up. Gerron took the help of blind inmates who could not see the bodies to pass them from hand to hand and clear the area before the performance.) He was even forced to direct a propaganda film.

Ultimately, just a couple of days before Auschwitz was closed down, Kurt Gerron met his end in the gas chambers there – a tragic end to a life dedicated to laughter.


In the last chapter of the book, Herzog asks the pertinent question: are we allowed to laugh at Hitler?

In a previous chapter, he had cited the instance of two great comedies from Hollywood, one a huge hit (Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) and the other a failure (To Be or Not To Be by Ernst Lubitsch). According to Herzog, Chaplin’s movie was a success because it was released before the USA entered the war: the events of Europe were still far away. In the case of To Be or Not To Be, Americans were fighting on the front when the movie came out, the scale of Nazi atrocities were more clearly understood, and people felt that it was no laughing matter –so the film was universally panned.

In a way, this informs the critique of the whole question of laughing at Hitler. American Holocaust scholar Terence Des Pres has summed up three conventions regarding representations of the Holocaust, which has been added to by cultural historians Kathy Laster and Heinz Steinert to form five rules in all:

1. The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.

2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason—artistic reasons included.

3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.

4. The province for depictions of the Holocaust is “high culture.” Popular cultural productions are automatically considered suspect and more superficial. Comedies appeal mostly to an audience that isn’t necessarily well educated. Therefore, it’s more difficult for comedies to be taken seriously as high culture.

5. The artist needs to have the correct attitude and motivation: altruism, good intentions, the proper moral and didactic aims. Even when a piece of culture is comic, the artist has to display appropriate seriousness.

                                    A Scene from “The Producers”

However, in 1968, Mel Brooks (a Jew himself) broke all conventions with The Producers, and followed it up with his remake of To Be or Not To Be in 1983. Roberto Benigni of Italy came up with Life is Beautiful in 1997, a fairy tale story of heartbreak and survival in a concentration camp – an “almost-fantasy”. There was a British TV comedy in 1990 titled Heil, Honey, I’m Home depicting Hitler as a suburban twit which was criticised widely; and most provocatively, the German cartoonist Walter Moers’ comic series Adolf, the Nazi Sow in which Hitler has survived the war and is living in suburban Germany along with Goering, who is working as a transvestite prostitute.

And of course, the book which I mentioned in the beginning, which started me on this trail.

Clearly, taboos are melting.


I think I will end this review with a final quote from Herzog.

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

(Emphasis mine)

Yes, that is indeed the pertinent question – and one that we should be asking ourselves in the current political scenario, when xenophobia is on the rise worldwide. There may be potential Hitlers waiting in the wings, waiting to ride to power on our prejudices.

Maus: the Power of the Graphic Novel

MausAs I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am a member of a generation who grew up reading comics. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones… the list goes on and on.

All these had a common characteristic – they were “safe” for children. They were saccharine tales stripped off all the unpleasantness in life: one feels that the parents of Siddhartha Gautama (before he became the Buddha) would have approved of them. Even the fairy tales which had a lot of gruesome elements were sanitised for children’s consumption.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that children should be exposed to the full horrors of life from a tender age onwards. Parents can take a call on this – as they have been doing, expertly or inexpertly for years. My focus here is on a medium, which has a lot of possibilities, being forced to sit in a corner and babble in baby talk.

I am talking about the medium of comics, or to give it a more fitting name, the graphic novel.


There was a time when horror stories, told in comic format, ruled the roost in the USA.

Entertaining Comics, or EC Comics, published horror stories, crime stories and war stories with vivid graphics that pulled no punches. The stories were uniformly gruesome, and must have given kids sleepless nights and “delicious nightmares” (to borrow a phrase from Alfred Hitchcock). I do not wish to enter into the debate whether the publications of such stories were ethical or not: they effectively went out of publication in 1954 because of the stringent guidelines put into effect by the “Comics Code Authority” set up by the Comics Magazine Association of America. It was a move ostensibly to save the youth. What it did, in my opinion, was to destroy (or at least temporarily deactivate) a powerful medium.

For me, a child of the sixties, all this history was unknown. For me, comics meant Disney and his contemporaries; telling cute stories of animals and fairies living in idyllic surroundings, where the most frightening thing was the bumbling Big Bad Wolf. Even the comics meant for “mature” readers, like Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom, contained a surprisingly small amount of violence or death. What it resulted in was my rejection of the format itself as not worthy of serious consideration.

Until I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.


Persepolis I: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis II: The Story of a Return recount Marjane Satrapi’s life as a rebellious teenager in the Iran of the Islamic Revolution; her “escape” from the country; and her return to find a totally changed landscape. It is a novel, told in comic-book format, and she exploits the possibilities of the medium to the fullest extent.

The illustrations are all in stark black and white. The story is told in a straightforward fashion, with little embellishments – however, the inherent power of exaggeration available to the cartoonist makes the difference. I was especially impressed by the way violence was portrayed: graphic and shocking, yet not at all disgusting.

However, compared to Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: Here My Troubles Began, Persepolis is tame – because Maus takes that taboo subject, the Holocaust, and makes a comic-book out of it.


“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human” – Adolf Hitler

Dehumanising the enemy is the first step towards eliminating them: which is what Hitler tried to do with Jews and nearly succeeded. In this book, Art Spiegelman tells us a story from that dark era – a very personal one, that of his father – yet distances us emotionally brilliantly by using Brechtian techniques.

Vladek Spiegelman, Art Spiegelman’s father, is a survivor of Auschwitz. He has a troubled relationship with his son: Vladek, a man of extreme miserliness and obsessive-compulsive traits, is very hard to get along with. He lives with his wife Mala (whom he married after Anja, Arthur’s mother committed suicide), with whom he has a love-hate relationship. Art, a child born after the Holocaust, is trying to tease out his father’s life story. It is the story of these interactions between father and son as much as the story of the Holocaust that these books tell.

The story of Art’s parents until their incarceration in Auschwitz is narrated In part one. Vladek, a handsome young entrepreneur in Poland, marries Anja, an heiress. They have a blissful life until Nazism starts rearing its ugly head, first in Germany and then in most of Eastern Europe. Anja and Vladek, returning from a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia where they had sojourned after Anja’s post-natal bout of depression, find Poland drastically changed – as Jews they were not safe any more.

However, the full extent of the Nazi design on Jews is brought home to Vladek when he is captured as a prisoner of war. He sees that Jews are treated differently from other POWs, and their ultimate destination is the grave: the question is only whether it shall be a slow death due to deprivation or a fast death by a bullet. Using his innate cunning, Vladek manages to escape and come back to his family.

By now, however, Poland is overrun. Jews live in ghettos. Spiegelman and his in-laws hide out for a time, but one by one their numbers get depleted as more and more people all either executed or shipped off to concentration camps. (Vladek and Anja send their firstborn Richieu with Tosha, Anja’s sister, to a “safe” ghetto – however, he is also killed by Tosha before she commits suicide, when they are about to be captured.) Ultimately, only Anja and Vladek are left – until they are also taken, betrayed by people who promise to smuggle them out to Hungary: the last in a line of betrayals.

Part One ends with the shocking discovery when Arthur learns that his father has destroyed all the notebooks his mother had kept, about her life in the concentration camp, after her suicide. As Art feels partly responsible for her death – it happened following his drug addiction, and institutionalisation in an asylum – he feels this act to be equivalent to murder: the murder of memories. Art calls Vladek a murderer and walks away in a huff.

In Part Two, Mala has had enough and left Vladek during their vacation, and he wants his son and his wife to move in with him, permanently – something which Arthur cannot imagine. However, they stay with him temporarily as Vladek continues with the story.

Maus 1

In the camp, the inmates are subjected to a slow, drawn-out death sentence as the guards play with them. There is no humanity here, it’s every man for himself, and the toughest shall only survive. And Vladek happens to be one smart, tough guy. He not only manages to survive, he manages to get Anja to survive, even to meet her inside the concentration camp. After the war, he manages to track his wife down, and start a new life.


After finishing this narrative which left me devastated, something was forcefully impressed upon me: the comic book format is the best format (perhaps the only format) to tell this harrowing tale.

Art Spiegelman uses a standard tool available to the caricaturist – anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics to animals.  Here, the device is put on its head as human beings are transformed into animals. The Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. Changing the characters into animals accomplishes two things – by taking away the individuality, we are forced to look at the big picture: and the race differences are emphasised so as to be insurmountable (a Jew and a Gentile are both human beings, but a mouse can never become a cat). So even when we are caught up in the story, the political subtext is never forgotten.

The cruelty of Auschwitz is emphasised by showing the Nazi cats playing with the Jew mice before killing them. The Nazi cats are not the cute ones out of Tom and Jerry, but have uniformly frightening visages which are set in permanent snarls. Mice are anyway “vermin” to be exterminated. But they are very clever and adept at finding holes to hide in – this is what many Jews did during that terrifying era (the Spiegelman’s hidey-holes are covered under the chapter “Mouse Holes” in Part One).

When the Jews are trying to disguise themselves as Poles, they are shown wearing pig masks tied at the back of the head. The use of this standard trope of comic-book disguise is brilliant here: its ineffectiveness is showed up, as well as the meaninglessness of dividing people into racial categories.

For me, the most impressive part of the book was the second one, where Art tries to come to terms with his father’s death as well as the ethics of making a book out of his life. Here, all the characters are shown as wearing animal masks, rather than as animals themselves – they have become more humanised and homogeneous, but the masks of race and nationality are not fully discarded.

Maus 2

As Art is interviewed by journalists from various countries, the panels depict, at the bottom, heaps of dead mice piled one on top of the other, their faces twisted in agony – this is superb use of the medium, not possible in a conventional narrative. Art regresses to a child, crying out for his dead mother, as the paparazzi bully him – a sequence both terrifying and comic.

(A funny tidbit:

An Israeli journalist asks Art: “If your book was about Israeli Jews, what kind of animal would you draw?

Art’s reply: “I have no idea… porcupines?”

A sliver of humour in a bleak narrative: I chortled at that!)

The troubled relationship between Art and Vladek is analysed in detail: and we get a glimpse of how Vladek changed into the self-centred, obsessive-compulsive miser that he has become. Did he survive because these traits were inbuilt, or did the camp life make him what he is? Tantalising question.

However, the penultimate panel of the comic is so very poignant and sentimental that it brought a lump to my throat.

Vladek is falling asleep, tired out after their very last session, and he tells Art: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…”

The dead son, the beautiful boy who should have had a bright future which was snuffed out by mindless race hatred – Vladek is talking to him here.

And I feel, to all such beautiful and unfortunate children.