Book review: Maus

“Maus,” written by Art Spiegelman, is a biographical graphic novel, following Spiegelman through a series of interviews with his father (Vladek), a Holocaust survivor. By use of postmodernism, a 20th century art movement that challenged the idea that there are universal certainties or truths, Spiegelman captures his family’s story in a haunting, honest space – an experience that seemed to evade reason. The title stems from the main postmodernist device used in the novel – to differentiate between races, Spiegelman depicts them as animals. Jewish people are mice (hence “Maus,” German for mouse), German people are cats, Polish people are pigs and so on. 

The interviews span from 1978 until 1991, when Vladek died, but the story frequently jumps back 40-some years to depict Vladek’s life. The use of narrative past and present weaves themes of heritage, fear, guilt and survival throughout an account of one of the darkest parts of human history, as well as the ways in which life went on, or didn’t, afterwards. 

The novel is split almost evenly between the past and present, both equally necessary and memorable. Early in the novel, we are introduced to Prisoner on the Hell Planet, a short comic Spiegelman originally published in 1977, in an attempt to work through his mother’s suicide. It is, quite frankly, a terrifying comic. The art style is entirely angles, almost Cubist, and a bare, live wire of almost violent anger runs underneath every panel.

But it is effective. You understand how Spiegelman felt in those horrific days and weeks after his mother’s suicide, and you understand how and why that time period influences his relationship with his father years later.  

The novel is also the first and only comic to have won a Pulitzer, and redefined what a graphic novel could be. Despite overall merit, it has been banned in a school district in Tennessee due to “unnecessary […] depiction of violence,” revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of the book as a whole. 

Undoubtedly, this is not a book for young children, nor does it claim to be – just because it is essentially a picture book does not mean it is right to teach to a classroom of eight-year-olds. 

But for those old enough to read it, it is not only appropriate – it is necessary. Spiegelman’s art provides a harrowing account of not only the Holocaust itself, but the aftermath 30, 40, 50 years later, and depicts generational trauma in a way I have never seen in another book. Erasing “Maus” is an attempt to deny the Holocaust and the effects it still has today, regardless of the straw-man defenses those banning it try to provide. 

At the end of the first volume, Spiegelman calls Vladek a murderer for burning his wife’s, Spiegelman’s mother, journals that would have accounted for the parts of the war where they were separated. To Spiegelamn, the erasure of her story is like losing her all over again. To try to ban this novel – to try to erase the Holocaust – gives a quick and easy answer to the question everyone asks after bans: did they even read the book?