“Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” by Art Spiegelman

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History (Maus, #1)(Author: Art Spiegelman) + (Year: 1986) + (Goodreads)


Review:

I first heard about this book in my History of Political Film class last year, after we watched the actual videos of the Nazi propaganda about Jews being vermin. Since then I have wanted to read the graphic novel and see the approach of the artist toward the issue.

It would be hard to say that Maus is not an influential book. It presents the viewpoint of a survivor from the Holocaust in nothing less than original medium. While I was reading Maus, I realized that I have watched many movies about the hardships of the Jews during the Holocaust, but that I haven’t actually read any books about it. I was really impressed by the simple but terrifying narrative of this book.

What is more, the characters in Maus are very realistic. The author doesn’t try to sugarcoat their personalities in order to manipulate the emotions of the readers. Neither Art, nor his father, or any of the other characters that come and go, are perfect. In fact, they are all hard to like, in one way or another. That doesn’t diminish the tragedy that they suffered, it just makes them as human as the rest of us, and shows that no one has the privilege of being safe under the threat of tyranny.

That being said, I will return back to the two main characters, Art and Vladek. To Vladek I had more sympathy, because in the present he is a old man and a lot of his bad traits could have come with age and suffering. But Art is intolerable. He is mean, rude, and he really doesn’t seem to care about what his parents went through. He is just greedy, overly eager to take this story from his father and profit from it. During every scene where he was present, I had a strong urge to cringe by how bad of a person and of a son he is.

From a moral point of view, everything about this book if bothersome. The entire history of the Holocaust is atrocious. That much should be universally clear.

From artistic point of view, there was one thing that bothered me about Maus, and that is the depiction of Poles. As far as the literal depiction of them as pigs (which are considered unclean [non-kosher] in Jewish culture), I understand that the author used the way Nazis referred to Poles as “swine”. However, even if we dismiss that, because the author used the same metaphor in depicting Jews as mice, the author does his best to present Poles as traitors and people who only helped the Jews to gain from it. Even if some of them did so, let’s not forget that there were also Jewish law enforcers whose job was to give other Jews to the Nazis. A large number of Poles aided the hiding and protection of Jews, and were detained, sent to labour camps, or executed for it. As well as the fact that if up to 6 million Jews died in concentration camps, so did about 2 million Poles (a large number of the Polish people I know have had relatives in concentration camps, too). I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not, in any way, want to make the horror that happened to the Jews seem any smaller. However, I do not think that the artistic choice of representation of the nationality/ethnic group that suffered the most after Jews is fair in Maus.

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“The Lover” by Marguerite Duras

The Lover (The Lover, #1)(Author: Marguerite Duras) + (Year: 1984) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Vietnam)


Review:

The prose of The Lover is beautiful. It opens for the reader a window into the sensual thoughts of a young girl, thirsty for passion and desire; haunted by the sad reality in which her family lives, but also obsessed with being loved, being noticed, being adored.

This semi-biographical novel tells the story of young Duras, wild, untamed and passionate. But as far as others see the main character as such, she, herself, is a ghost in this world. She is torn between what she craves in life, and what her duties are. She certainly doesn’t want to do what people tell her, but being born in the time she was, she is not always in control of her life. That role often belongs to her brother, a gambling spoiled brat who respects no one and nothing but his own desires; or her mother, a woman distraught by her poorness, but unable to decline her son’s every wish, be it attention or money.

That being so, the young girl is never really alive, and always too alive, too bright, overshadowing everyone around herself, and drowning in their shadow. And this girl falls in love, or is full of desire for a young Chinese heir who can never be more than her lover. As everything about her, this love is also quite the opposite, it is often a fiery hate. It is doomed, but it can also never be any other way.

Because of that, The Lover is a tragic letter to things lost a long time ago, from that love, to youth, innocence and family comfort.

This book, however, defies my beliefs about humanity. Or rather, what I strive to believe in. I don’t want to fully give in to the notion that people can be as horrible, cruel and cold as they are in The Lover. I remain opposed to the idea that humans can be gorged out of emotions in such a way. I don’t want to believe that beauty can only be found in tragedy. Nor that the human is so selfish and powerless.

“The Girl with Seven Names” by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story(Author: Hyeonseo Lee) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: North Korea)


Review:

This is the second book that I have read, which tells the stories of North Korean defectors, the first being Nothing to Envy.

I debated with myself whether I need another book for my book world trip, but what set my mind was the idea, that while Nothing to Envy is a story told through a “middle man”, The Girl with Seven Names is an autobiography. Ultimately, now I can say that the difference between the two books is mostly in the way they view the subject. Hyeonseo Lee tells her own experiences, the life as she knew it, the world as she was taught to view it. However, Barbara Demick‘s book is more of a collection of stories, told through the prism of someone who knows the political situation well and could define the difference between what the defectors were experiencing, and what they knew about the world, versus what was actually happening. While this is mentioned in Lee’s narrative, she talks about it more in retrospect, as when certain political and historical situations were unfolding, she was oblivious to the facts, having been indoctrinated in the North Korean values.

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a very valuable and interesting look into North Korea, and especially the way the people there view the world. But more so, as Hyeonseo Lee says so herself, she was not even from the lower classes of society, so she had it better than the rest. And “better” was not starving to death, not being sold as a bride in China, not being invited to serve and please the “leader”.

I think it’s really hard for any of us, even those, like me, who have lived in a communist, or post-communist country, to imagine the level of poverty, corruption and censure that people experience in a country like North Korea. I’ve witnessed firsthand only one somewhat similar country, that I’d rather not name, and it saddened me deeply how much people need to put up with to gain even their basic human rights, how much bribery is needed to not be falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit, or how little you have, and yet learn to live with. That is not to say that I’m not seeing remains of this to this day in my own country. There was one particular sentence in The Girl with Seven Names, which reminded me of how Bulgarians can be, and which is something that I’ve heard even from foreigners who otherwise like or even love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people:

“North Koreans have a gift for negativity towards others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.”

While to my knowledge, people haven’t had those criticism sessions here, I feel like pessimism and negativity are only two of many things that get born from regimes like the one in North Korea. So in many ways, the book was both very alien and unimaginable, but also very familiar, and close to home.

The fact which saddened my while reading both The Girl with Seven Names, and Nothing to Envy, is how North Koreans are treated while trying to defect. I would understand the unnecessary repercussions if North Koreans were not wanted in South Korea. But knowing that South Korea welcomes them, for all the countries around to stop the defectors, imprison them, or return them to North Korea to be punished or even executed, seems the highest level of inhumane.

While reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky Hyeonseo Lee was in comparison to other defectors. At the very least, she managed to get out, and save her family, and even become a spokesperson about the rights of North Koreans. But what about all of those who were detained, killed, or maybe even worse…?

I think that books like this one are such which every person should read. Especially those who live happy little lives in a rich country in the West, and have no understanding of how the world works, or how bad some people have it. I’m sorry if it seems harsh, but the lack of empathy in some countries has reached levels which are so high that should be criminal. We’re all people, so we shouldn’t just accept that we deserve to have it better than others.