The Art of Storytelling: A Fraught Reconstruction of Truth in Spiegelman’s Maus, by Joshua Onichino

The Art of Storytelling: A Fraught Reconstruction of Truth in Spiegelman’s Maus, by Joshua Onichino

Joshua Onichino: My name is Joshua Onichino, and I am a second-year student studying Enriched Health Sciences. Since I was young, I have been fascinated with the art of storytelling and our attempts to reconstruct our lived experiences through narrative. There is perhaps no better example of the struggle between depicting an ostensibly true story and abiding by the rigidity of traditional storytelling than in Spiegelman’s Maus. It is in this light that I explored Spiegelman’s work to better understand our fraught efforts to communicate stories rooted in immense suffering, both in Art’s relationship with his father, Vladek, and in the Holocaust.


         The atrocities of the Holocaust prompted a deeply cynical perspective on goodness, truth, and human nature. The ideologies of postmodernism interrogate truth to illustrate the fundamentally flawed nature of the human condition. Postmodern thought lies at the heart of Art Spiegelman’s novel, Maus, which criticizes the very act of storytelling. It reveals that what is presented as an ostensibly “true story” is in fact an artificial reconstruction of reality. Spiegelman critiques the truth-fiction binary through his use of two principal techniques: First, his work foregrounds its own internal inconsistencies and highlights contradictions in the stories of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. These inconsistencies demonstrate the impossibility of a singular, absolute truth. Second, Spiegelman casts truth as illusory by emphasizing bias: both his father’s, as the latter recounts his memories, and his own, as he reconstructs his father’s past.

         Spiegelman deploys inconsistencies as a device to disrupt orthodox storytelling. Maus is built upon a fragile paradigm that segregates peoples by depicting them as various animals. However, there are instances in the novel in which Vladek, a Jew, drawn as a mouse, poses as a Pole, depicted as a pig. Spiegelman accounts for this by drawing Vladek with a pig mask; “You’re a Pole like me…” he whispers in the ear of a Polish train man (Spiegelman 66). In this way, the frailty of Spiegelman’s metaphorical paradigm is exposed, making clear his point that race is a flawed social construct. Vladek’s story of an Auschwitz prisoner who is adamant that he is German is a second stark incoherence. Deviating from his paradigm once more, Spiegelman depicts this person as both a mouse and a cat in sequential panels in his work. Vladek’s story prompts Art to ask, “Was he a German?”, to which Vladek replies “Who knows[?]” (210). The exchange reflects the author’s willingness to deviate from his own paradigm of racial identity. He invites the reader to doubt the author’s ability to know the prisoner’s “true” identity, thus potentially undermining his own credibility as a storyteller who has written a work premised on an objective truth.

         The sequence of events in Maus adds to its ambiguity and inconsistency. Orthodox narratives are characterized by a clear beginning, middle, and end. In contrast, Maus is deliberately disjointed. At the beginning of the novel’s first chapter, Vladek shows Art into his home and the latter remarks: “[Vladek] had aged a lot since I saw him last. My mother’s suicide and his two heart attacks had taken their toll” (13). Spiegelman’s nonchalant presentation of his mother’s suicide is unsettling. While traditionally an event of such magnitude would emerge at a novel’s emotional height, here it arises in passing at the novel’s outset, and is thus misaligned with usual narrative patterns.

Inconsistencies also arise through Art’s disputes with Vladek.  When Art comments on the orchestra he knows played as Auschwitz prisoners marched, Vladek contests: “I remember only marching, not any orchestras” (214). The two reach another impasse when Vladek provides his son with a detailed timeline of his imprisonment in Auschwitz. Art’s observation that this timeline does not coincide with the timing of his father’s imprisonment is met with a retort: “So? … In Auschwitz, we didn’t wear watches” (228). If Spiegelman were looking to convey a single, authoritative “truth” through Maus, he would have omitted these disagreements that call his narrative’s accuracy into question. Rather, examples like those highlighted above illuminate how historical narratives are necessarily fraught reconstructions of the past rather than a chronological account of events. 

The second way that Spiegelman contests truth in storytelling in Maus is by foregrounding the manner in which bias colours renditions of the past. Vladek is immediately a sympathetic character as a Holocaust survivor. However, Spiegelman also depicts his father as ethically ambiguous, suggesting his inability to recount his past with complete veracity. While Maus is littered with examples of Vladek’s craftiness during the Holocaust, the man’s heroism is juxtaposed against his bigotry and miserliness later in life. Spiegelman recounts his father’s perseverance through typhus immediately after the reader learns how Vladek invokes his experience as a Holocaust survivor to return an opened box of cereal at a grocery store, pronouncing triumphantly: “[The manager] helped me as soon as I explained to him… how it was in the [concentration] camps” (250). Further, the reader struggles with Vladek’s blatant racism seeing as he survived brutal racial oppression. Incensed at his daughter-in-law, Françoise, for having picked up a Black hitchhiker, Vladek says: “I had the whole time to watch out that this Shv•rtser doesn’t steal us the groceries from the back seat!” (259). By exposing his father’s moral shortcomings, Spiegelman undermines the credibility of Vladek’s accounts of the Holocaust.

It is not just Vladek’s stories that are fraught with bias. Spiegelman acknowledges his own limited ability to recount the past objectively. At the novel’s outset, Spiegelman casts himself as an unreliable narrator by including information about the first phases of Vladek’s relationship with Anja. He did so even though Vladek instructed him to omit these details. Art leans back, feigning compliance by stating, “Okay, okay – I promise” (25). Spiegelman’s inclusion of this exchange, integrating his own disingenuousness into the story, diminishes his credibility as its narrator. Further, by incorporating himself as a character in Maus, Spiegelman reveals a prominent source of his own bias—that is, his relationship with his father. Spiegelman’s ability to capture Vladek’s story is impaired by his father’s emotionally abusive behaviour, which contributes to Spiegelman’s institutionalization later in life (105). His anger toward Vladek emerges when Art listens to a recorded conversation he had with Vladek. His father bemoans his predicament with Mala, prompting Art to snap: “Enough! Tell me about Auschwitz!!” (207). In reliving this moment, Art diminishes in size, regressing to a state of childlike helplessness. Spiegelman thereby illustrates his inability to reconstruct his father’s life without prejudice; he refuses to conceal his troubled relationship with his father, undermining his own credibility in recounting Vladek’s story. In another example, Art sits atop a pile of dead mice, suggesting the guilt and self-loathing he experiences on account of Maus I, the first part of Maus published prior to the complete work, becoming a critical success (201). In the ensuing scene, he is bombarded by movie producers, journalists, and salesmen who see Maus as an investment opportunity as opposed to a story. These actors personify the crippling pressures of creating a product that sells regardless of veracity.

Maus deviates from traditional modes of storytelling, resulting in the novel’s numerous internal inconsistencies and the acknowledgment of biases that limit the storyteller’s credibility. In this way, Maus exposes narrative as inherently flawed, demonstrating how “true stories” fall short in their efforts to reconstruct reality and how narrative will invariably fail to capture truth in its essence. Aligned with postmodernism, Spiegelman asserts that a quest for objective “truth” is as fraught as the human condition itself. 

Works Cited

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus, Pantheon Books, 1997.

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