Critical Context

Grass had used talking rats to comment on human calamity in his earliest play, Hochwasser (1957; Flood, 1967). Oskar, again, is his most celebrated character from The Tin Drum. The grotesque caricature of dehumanized hominoids, here called rat-humans, is an echo of the robotic sculptures created in the image of humans by the gifted artist Eddi Amsel in Grass’s grand novel Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years, 1965).

Grass’s Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (1972; From the Diary of a Snail, 1973), with its admonitions to society to move ahead peacefully and slowly, avoiding violent revolutionary leaps, is memorialized in The Rat in the form of mutant flying snails, which the peaceful rats must subdue in order to survive. His all-inclusive lesson about the violent, male domination of world history in The Flounder is invoked when the five women, all of whom are characters in that novel, here board their ancient boat, named The New Ilsebill after the central fairy-tale figure of The Flounder.

Grass’s work with the film director Volker Schlondorff, who filmed The Tin Drum and is described in Kopfgeburten: Oder, Die Deutschen sterbenaus (1980; Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out, 1982), is evoked by Oskar’s occupation as a filmmaker and by Schlondorff’s appearance at Oskar’s sixtieth birthday party.

Reviewing the scope of Grass’s oeuvre from the vantage point of this culminating tale, it is clear that the artist has, for more than three decades, consistently portrayed what he sees as the most dangerous insanities of the modern age. Yet out of it all, he has synthesized some very reasonable prescriptions for a sane and peaceful world. He knows that these prescriptions are probably futile. He knows he is a dreamer. He knows the chances for doomsday are increasing. Yet he does not give up; his very predictions of calamity are themselves valiant attempts to avert it.