Latam Booklook: 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman

With drawings of humanized mice and in a graphic novel format, a son reconstructs the steps of his Jewish father in the Second World War

Cover of "Maus" by Art Spiegelman

'Maus' by Art Spiegelman cover / LatinAmerican Post composition

LatinAmerican Post | Juan Gabriel Bocanegra

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What is it about?

Several years after his mother's suicide, when his father Vladek was already old and married to another woman, Art Spiegelman decides to talk about the Holocaust. To talk is not the correct verb, rather is it to draw. Or better, make vignettes with anthropomorphized animals that recreate what happened in the concentration camp. He created this graphic novel by reconstructing the interviews to his father between 1972 and 1982, the year in which he dies of heart failure.

Leer en español: Latam Booklook: 'Maus' de Art Spiegelman

The story not only recounts the suffering, anguish, and betrayals that his father experienced during the war years but also the moments of cunning, solidarity, and resistance that helped him survive. In addition, we not only see what happens between 1939 and 1945 but also the stressful relationship between Art and Vladek 40 years later. We see Art accompanying Vladek to the bank because he does not want to leave all the money to his new wife; fighting with him, because he wants to return to the supermarket a box of cereal almost unoccupied so he doesn't throw away the leftovers. In other words, Art shows that although it is admirable that his father has survived the war being a Jew, he is also an old stingy man with whom it is difficult to deal with. He does not victimize him.

Maus is divided into two parts, of six and five chapters. In the first, he tells about life before the war and the first years of Vladek and Anja, his mother, when they managed to survive the expropriations and the ghettos. In the second, they have already been captured and they have to live in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

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Who wrote it?

Art Spiegelman (1948) was born in Stockholm after his parents went looking for work after the war, but he grew up and studied in the USA after they managed to migrate. There he did his entire career, first as a designer of Topps Gumms and then as a graphic novelist, editor and contributor to magazines such as The New Yorker, Playboy and The New York Times.

Maus is his most recognized work, which not only gave a turn to the publishing world but also to the way of talking about the trauma of war. Originally published in installments in the magazine Raw, founded by him and his wife in 1980, this graphic novel broke with the stigma over comics, which were relegated to infantile and superficial themes.

When it was published in a book as a compilation of all the pieces, it was translated to more than 15 languages and, in 1992, it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. So far, it has been the only comic that has achieved this prestigious award.

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Should I read it or not?

Maus is a great work not only because of the subject it deals with, the horrors of World War II, but because of the way it builds history. On one hand, the choice to do so in a comic format gives it a nuance away from the realism with which sufferings are usually treated and, on the other hand, the constant change in time changes the approach of chronicle with which he used to recount the events of the Holocaust.

There is not much blood, not emaciated and purulent faces, nor very dirty and famished bodies; there are only mainly mice, cats, and pigs, which represent the Jews, Nazis, and Poles respectively. Contrary to the realism inherent in this type of experience, Spiegelman decides to distance himself from the excess in pain by drawing animals with human bodies. These have very little expressiveness and characteristic features, so much so that if it were not for the clothes it would be difficult to differentiate one character from the other without the help of the text bullets. This feature involves the reader in a different way because of the distance he proposes in front of the characters. This does not mean that suffering can be seen objectively, without empathy, but that the reader manages to process so much massacre and pain through a fictional filter, which could be said to provoke a broader reflection on all the consequences from the war.

Also, not only being a chronicle or a testimony of the experiences of Vladek and the precariousness that he lived but the reconstruction of memory from the vision of the son, the book becomes more a reflection on the memory of suffering than of horror of war as such. How do we remember violence? Is it possible to relive the trauma without consequences? The more detailed a description is closer to the real fact? What is omitted and what is stored in a more precious way? These are some of the questions that arise from the narration in different times, the 40s and the 80s, that this graphic novel deals with.

In that sense, as readers, we face not so much the narration of what this Jew suffered, but how he remembers some years that he has tried to remove for years from his head until his son asks him to relive the trauma. In a fragment of the second part, Art's wife, Françoise, tells him that "I'd rather kill myself than going through that (...) All that Vladek has gone through. It is a miracle that he has survived ", to which Art responds" Yes, but in a certain sense he has not survived. Is surviving just being alive after the war or living without the memories of so much pain?