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Explained: Why Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘Maus’ topped Amazon best-seller list

Serialised from 1980-1991 in Raw, an experimental cartoon and graphics magazine brought out by Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly, Maus is a genre-bending post-modernist work on the dehumanising effects of the Holocaust.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti |
Updated: February 1, 2022 12:06:16 am
Two books of the graphic novel "Maus" by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman are pictured in this illustration in Pasadena, California, US. (Reuters)

A unanimous decision by the McMinn County school board in Tennessee, US, to pull Jewish American cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus from its syllabus has seen a unique protest — on January 28, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book climbed to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list in the categories of fiction satire and comics and graphic novel in a show of defiance against the censorship. On Sunday, January 30, overall, for all books, The Complete Maus held number three spot and the first volume of the book, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, occupied the number two spot.

What prompted the ban?

On January 10, at a meeting of the McMinn County school board, members found objectionable some depictions in the seminal graphic novel that is based on the Holocaust experience of the author’s Jewish Pole parents. The board cited eight swear words and a nude illustration as reasons for dropping it from the eighth-grade curriculum. The minutes show board members in agreement over the supposed inappropriateness of the text. One member, while agreeing that the Holocaust was “horrible, brutal and cruel”, takes exception to its depiction in the book. “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.” Another board member is quoted as saying, “We don’t need this stuff to teach kids history. We can teach them history and we can teach them graphic history. We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

The decision, that came days before the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, met with widespread protest both among the local community and across the world. The school board upheld their decision, stating that it was not a ban, but a mere replacement with a more suitable text for the intended age group.

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Maus, Holocaust’s memory keeper

Serialised from 1980-1991 in Raw, an experimental cartoon and graphics magazine brought out by Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly, Maus is a genre-bending post-modernist work on the dehumanising effects of the Holocaust. Based on a series of interviews that Spiegelman took of his father Vladek, the book brings alive the horrors of the genocide that killed around 6 million Jews.

The book alternates between two timelines — Vladek’s narrative is situated in the years preceding World War II, between 1930 till the end of the World War II in 1945 and speaks of how he and his wife survived Auschwitz, while the other timeline begins in 1978-79, in Spiegelman’s youth, before jumping forward to 1986, in the second installment of the book. The portions featuring Spiegelman explores his guilt, grief and anger in coming to terms with his family’s past and the death of his elder brother Richieu during the Nazi pogrom. The writer examines his difficult relationship with his father and the death of his mother by suicide in the years after the Holocaust ended.

The book begins with an epigraph — a quote by the German dictator, Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” In a subversive twist to the Nazi propaganda of the time that characterised Jews as vermin, in his hand-drawn illustrations, Spiegelman depicts people with animal characteristics — the Germans are shown as cats, the Poles as pigs, while Jews, in general, are depicted as mice.

After an initial struggle to find a publisher, the first six chapters were picked up by Pantheon Books in 1986 for the first volume, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. Later, Pantheon brought out the second volume, and eventually, a collated volume with both parts.

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Since its publication, the reception of the book has been overwhelmingly positive. Spiegelman’s audacious experiment in form and narrative elevated a mass medium like comics to serious literature, thus changing the perception of the genre. In the years since, the book has been translated into well over 30 languages and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the only graphic novel to have received the award till date. A path-breaking work, it has been at the centre of critical studies on post-modernism, post-memory and Holocaust studies.

What are the protests about?

In a recent opinion piece in CNN, journalist and historian David M Perry writes that the real reason people are daunted by Maus is not its depiction of profanity or violence, but because of a “fundamental misunderstanding of what education is. To ban Maus for being an uncomfortable read is, in fact, to be against teaching the Holocaust, regardless of the school board member’s protests to the contrary. To actually engage with the horror of the Holocaust, one has to be horrified, thrown from one’s comfortable position, engaging with the terrible, messy reality.”

The protests are also a reaction to an ongoing right-wing push for cultural conservatism in America and across the world, that is increasingly resulting in a censorship of academic and literary freedoms and free speech on issues such as race, gender, religion and sexuality. In the aftermath of the ban, author Neil Gaiman tweeted, “There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days”, while poet Maggie Smith tweeted, “We’ve lost our damn minds if we think that to keep kids safe in school, we need to ban books, not assault weapons.” The US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, tweeted, “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors… Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”

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In an interview to CNN, Spiegelman, now 73, termed the decision of the school board as “myopic” and said, “It has the breadth of autocracy and fascism about it.”

Maus’s previous run-ins with censorship

This, however, is not the first time that the book has been at the centre of censorship attempts. During its publication in Germany in the ’90s, Maus had run into legal trouble over the Swastika featured on the book’s cover. Since German laws do not allow for Swastikas to be displayed on book covers that aren’t works of academic history, the German culture ministry had to intervene to allow its publication.

In 2015, Russia had moved to withdraw copies of Maus for its display of the Swastika in adherence to a law that banned Nazi propaganda. In an interview with The Guardian in April 2015, reacting to the decision, Spiegelman had said “It’s a real shame because this is a book about memory… We don’t want cultures to erase memory.”

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First published on: 31-01-2022 at 03:08:38 pm
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