I hate cats, I have no particularly strong feelings about pigs and I am vaguely fond of mice. Presumably these are the emotions I am supposed to have towards the Nazis, Poles and Jews from Art Spiegelman’s unsettling comic book of the holocaust Maus. In a pictorial biography of his father, Spiegelman sends us scurrying through the doubts and dark alleys of pre-war Poland straight into the now deadening familiarity of the Nazi trap. There has been a bit of a hoo-hah about this book, with its critics claiming either that the depiction of the Jews as mice (and probably more offensively, the Poles as pigs) fosters rather than exposes racist leanings, or that the comic strip format per se trivialises the enormity of this century’s worst barbarism. Playing around with the holocaust can be a dangerous game. The recent Channel 4 film The Struggles for Poland landed itself in hot water by simply reminding us of the anti-semitism indigenous to pre-war Poland. So what is Spiegelman up to?
From Aesop to Orwell animals have found themselves anthropomorphised into human types, cute or crude. Spiegelman takes this tradition to its extreme with the terrified appeal of his beady Jew-mice eyes, the mandarin claws of the Nazi-cats, the boorish herd-stupidity of the Polepigs: He has taken Hitler’s terrible assertion ‘the