(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Set in large part during the Orwellian year of 1984 (also the Chinese “Year of the Rat” and the six hundredth anniversary of the legendary pied piper of Hamelin), The Rat is informed with an air of eschatology and doomsday. Yet it is also ironic and self-parodying, something of a swan song for Günter Grass himself because it was written as he approached the age of sixty. His previous works and their characters are here united and come full circle to their beginnings.

Oskar Matzerath-Bronski, the protagonist of Grass’s first novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), now reappears in time for his sixtieth birthday. He has become a motion-picture producer, whom the narrator engages to make a silent film about acid rain and the death of the forests.For this film, Oskar decides to parody fairy tales and the Walt Disney style, bringing together all the fairy-tale figures to save the forest from the monied interests and corrupt officials who are destroying it.

Meanwhile, Oskar’s grandmother, Anna Koljaiczek, still lives in Poland and is approaching her one hundred seventh birthday. She extends an invitation to Oskar and to the other members of her far-flung family to help her celebrate it. The visionary Oskar prepares a video in advance of the event which shows the birthday party. He and his chauffeur, Bruno, his former guard at the asylum in The Tin Drum, load his Mercedes with gifts for the Polish relatives (including a population of small toy Smurfs for the children) and set out.

Interwoven with these strands of narrative is an account of five women, including the narrator’s wife, Damroka, who embark on a scientific expedition into the Baltic Sea to study the link between pollution and a population explosion of jellyfish. Along the way, however, Damroka secretly consults with a speaking flounder, a reference to Grass’s novel Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, 1978). Off the coast near Gdansk, the women are led by the fish to the site of a legendary sunken city which was ruled by women.

Yet another narrative, also interesting to Oskar as a potential film script, concerns a certain Lothar Malskat, a painter convicted of art forgery in the 1950’s, who confessed to having completely repainted the ceilings in Gothic buildings rather than having merely restored the (almost nonexistent) originals. Oskar believes that his film about Malskat will open eyes, especially the eyes of young people, to the fraudulent nature of the whole postwar era and of its legacy, the global arms race.

Other narratives concern rats, who, having survived such calamities as...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)