Sunday, September 09, 2012

And now for something totally different....

When I read Maus (1991), the award winning Graphic novel about the holocaust, I was, I have to admit, disappointed. Despite its avant-garde format and my awareness of its ground-breaking merits, I felt the story itself to be rather trite. At first, I thought it might have been the format, but I rejected that idea. After all, I found Persepolis (2000) Marjane Satrapi’s story of the revolution in Iran to be wonderfully informative, touching and funny. And it wasn’t the topic for although like Elie Wiesel, I’m against the notion of “trivializing” the horror of what happened to the Jews, I believe--unlike a colleague who once told me that the world didn’t need any more movies about the holocaust--that there’s always room for “another” story about the holocaust.  Thus, I have to conclude that it was a lack of compelling characters. Vladek (the main character) is just unlikable. Unlike Elie Wiesel’s father in Night (1982), Vladek is petty and mean.  He doesn’t get much better after the war, and we seldom get a glimpse of his “good” side.  Perhaps this has to do with Art Spiegelman’s, (the writer) ambivalent feelings toward his father. Wiesel’s love and admiration are patently clear in Night whereas Spiegelman never seems to wholly come to terms with his father. In Night , Wiesel is a young man whose life is turned upside down by the war, and we see him going through all the stages of grief: disbelief, denial, pain, anger, acceptance (whatever the stages are) as he fights to maintain not only his life but his dignity and his sanity. Spiegelman, on the other hand is basically a privileged whiner who struggles to cut the old man a break. 

That said, I have just finished reading "another story" of the holocaust titled If I should die before I wake by Han Nolan (paperback edition 1996). This is a novel aimed at the young adult market. It’s the story of Chana, a concentration camp survivor (like Vladek in Maus) who is "channeled" I guess, by a young neo-nazi named Hilary. Hilary is convalescing in a Jewish hospital after a motorcycle accident when she starts having “dreams” of a girl in a concentration camp.  In these dreams, Hillary lives through Chana’s experiences in such a way that she becomes Chana. The boundaries between the two lives become so blurred in Hilary's mind--and for the reader--that she starts to call her grandmother Bubbé and even to call out for her Mama.

Unlike the characters in Maus, Chana and Hilary are convincing and likeable; their stories compelling. You are most likely to find yourself rooting for Chana.  You want her to survive, even when she is at her darkest, and meanest.  Even when she rejects god, and family and refuses to care for others.  You feel her pain.  You also want Hilary, the neo-nazi to survive and make amends with family and friends.  It is true, as some critics have said, that we get more of Chana than of Hillary, but that is the point.  It is through the story of the holocaust that Hilary finds herself .  She discovers like Chana that one can find peace as Bubbé used to say by caring for others.  It is of course, as so many young adult books, about redemption, but it doesn’t preach. Although it does have a good dose of Bible quotes, they work without overwhelming.  The one weakness was in the characterization of Hilary’s mom.  Her transformation from manic depressive to Bible toting fanatic, was a reach.  Still, I highly recommend it.  

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