Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Rat

It takes considerable skill to pull off such a fantastic and convoluted work as this, but Grass is equal to the task. The book is far richer than any brief summary can indicate.

Narrative duties are shared by the author and a rat, while another character, Oskar Matzerath, pipes up now and then to suggest how the novel should proceed. There are several plotlines that twist, double back on themselves, and branch out in truly amazing directions.

Really Big Spoilers

1. The narrator gets a rat for Xmas. It speaks to him in dreams and explains how rats survived the Flood and what really happened at Hamelin. Eventually rats cause WW3 by infiltrating the computers of Eastern and Western powers. The only human to survive is the narrator, who is orbiting the earth in a space capsule. Meanwhile the rats prosper, though their fur has turned green. Eventually a new species of rat appears -- with blue eyes, blond hair, and a penchant for marching in columns.

2. The narrator convinces Oskar to make a film about the plight of dying forests. Oscar is a successful producer whose company, Post Futurum, "pre-enacts" future scenes -- "prevision" or "clairvoyant film" it's called at one point. While visiting Gdansk to celebrate his grandmother's 107th birthday, WW3 takes place. His withered remains and those of his grandmother are treated by the rats as relics.

3. The narrator's partner, Damroka, and four female shipmates (all of whom were romantically involved with the narrator in the past) embark on a scientific journey to count jellyfish in the Baltic Sea. A talking flounder directs them to the submerged city of Vineta, but just as they reach it they are incinerated by an atomic blast.

4. Fairy tale characters take up the plight of the dying forests. They travel to Bonn to appeal to the Grimm Brothers who head up the Ministry of Medium-Term Forest Damage. Rumpelstilkskin drives a car that runs on witch piss. Other characters include Little Red Cap, who pops in and out of a wolf's zippered belly, and Snow White and her sex-crazed dwarfs. They take the Chancellor prisoner in a fairy tale fashion, but eventually are crushed (literally) by the military.

5. A painter named Lothar Malskat successfully completes a magnificent art forgery in a Lubeck cathedral. The narrator compares him to two "political forgers," Konrad Adenauer and Walter Ulbricht, leaders of the postwar Germanies. Grass writes:

That was the era of winking, of appearances, of whitewashing. In the decade of innocent lambs and clean bills of health, of murderers holding public office and Christian hypocrites, no one wanted to know too much, regardless of what happened.

6. Oskar returns from Gdansk to celebrate his 60th birthday. The party is attended by the narrator and Damroka.


Reading this, I imagined a resemblance between Grass and another famous writer. The avuncular mustaches, the similar war records (each captured by the other's army and held as a POW), a taste for the fantastic, the use of recurring characters, and the importance of WW2 as a central theme, especially in their most famous works, Slaughterhouse-5 and The Tin Drum. Both grappled with political and moral issues. Both were graphic artists.

Oskar Matzerath is the protagonist of Grass's first novel, The Tin Drum.

Damroka and the talking flounder are characters who first appeared in The Flounder (the only other novel by Grass that I've read). So too a woman named Ilsebill, after whom the boat in this book is named.

Lothar Malskat is not a fictional character.

The cover image is a fine pen-and-ink drawing by the author.

Gunter Grass won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.

Other Ratworthy Books

Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle - During a lab revolt, an insane rat becomes an apologist for animal testing.

The Papers of Andrew Melmoth by Hugh Sykes Davies - A scientist disappears into the sewers where he has been studying rats.

King Rat by China Mieville - A young man in London discovers he's part rat.

Daybreak 2250 AD by Andre Norton - One of her earliest and best YA books. After a nuclear war, rats have mutated into creatures that walk on their hind legs, wear loin-cloths, and wage war on humans.

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Wilson - A personal investigation into the life of the modern rat.