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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216

The narrative of Cat and Mouse is fairly abstract, moving the narrator's perspective flexibly and abruptly to different points in his memory. We know that we are dealing with a somewhat unreliable narrator, as reading his account becomes an exercise in navigating his disjointed thoughts. For example, he refers to the character Mahlke in both second and third person perspective, sometimes even switching mid-sentence.

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The story involves the narrator ruminating on Mahlke from their time as children to his disappearance at the end of World War II. Much of the story takes place on a half-submerged wrecked ship where Pilenz (the narrator), Mahlke, and their friends meet every summer. Mahlke makes a sport of diving into the wreckage from the hatch to salvage parts of the ship.

At some point, Mahlke receives an Iron Cross for his service and returns to his school to give a speech. However, his school had previously expelled him for stealing an Iron Cross from a visiting officer and will not let him speak. Mahlke, who says that the only reason he entered the war was to give a speech at his school afterward, deserts his post. A mentally unwell Mahlke is pressured by an increasingly antagonistic Pilenz to dive into the wreckage once more, and he is not seen again.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

Encouraged by his confessor, Pilenz writes down his recollections about the complicated cat-and-mouse relationship he had with Mahlke, his friend from school. He begins with a sunny day on the baseball field, when he set a cat on Mahlke’s enormous Adam’s apple; unable to resist, the cat scratched Mahlke, embarrassing him. Pilenz identifies himself with the “eternal cat” that will be Mahlke’s undoing.

A group of boys that included Pilenz, Mahlke, Hotten Sontag, and Schilling spent their summers swimming around the abandoned wreck of a Polish minesweeper in the Danzig harbor. Mahlke went to a great deal of trouble to learn to swim, and soon he swam and dived better than any of the other boys. He often swam down into the minesweeper, bringing back a variety of objects, including a medallion of the Virgin Mary, a fire extinguisher, and a Victrola. Sometimes the boys were joined by Tulla Pokriefke, a girl who greatly admired Mahlke.

Because of his enormous Adam’s apple, Mahlke wore a variety of objects around his neck, including the medallion and a screwdriver he brought up from the minesweeper. Once he even started a fashion trend by wearing yarn pom-poms as if they were a bow tie. These objects, according to Pilenz, did as much to draw attention to as they did to distract from Mahlke’s Adam’s apple.

One summer, Mahlke, exploring the insides of the minesweeper, found that he could reach a radio room that was not underwater. This became Mahlke’s sanctuary, and he transported many of his treasures to the room, cleverly protecting them from water damage on the way. He took the Victrola and several records to his secret room, where he played music while the boys sunned themselves on top of the minesweeper.

Mahlke, a Roman Catholic, was remarkably devoted to the Virgin Mary, although he professed no faith in God or in Christ. This excessive devotion set him apart from the other boys, even from Pilenz, who was often an altar boy at the church Mahlke attended. Mahlke sometimes dreamed of being a clown when he grew up, and he was certainly very conscious of himself as a spectacle at school. With his odd looks, his religious fanaticism, and his collection of bizarre objects hanging from his neck, Mahlke was the object of alternating ridicule and admiration from his schoolmates.

The boys attended the Conradium, an elitist all-boys school run by the headmaster Klohse, a member of the National Socialist Party. After an alumnus of the school who was awarded the Iron Cross for his service in the air force came to speak to the student body, all of Mahlke’s energy became focused on the Iron Cross. He began to dream of earning one for himself; the Iron Cross would be the perfect counterbalance to his Adam’s apple.

Another speaker came, and although Mahlke did not want to go, Pilenz dragged him along. This speaker, although extremely boring, also had the Iron Cross around his neck; after the speech, in the school locker room, Mahlke stole the medal. He wore it to school under his shirt and tie. Eventually Mahlke confessed to headmaster Klohse, who expelled him from school.

For a while, Mahlke attended the nearby Horst Wessel School. He spent a summer in paramilitary training and then joined the army in an effort to gain his own Iron Cross. Eventually he succeeded in doing so and returned to Danzig in triumph. He expected that he, like other illustrious alumni, would be asked to give a speech at the Conradium. When he approached Klohse, however, his speech already written, Klohse refused to allow him to speak to the student body. Mahlke, frustrated, sought out Klohse near his home, confronted him, and slapped him in the face. Because of this, and because he overstayed his furlough from the army, Mahlke became a fugitive. When his old priest, Father Gusewski, was unable to help him, he turned to Pilenz for help.

Pilenz took advantage of Mahlke’s total dependence on him. He refused to harbor him in his basement, instead suggesting that Mahlke hide in the old minesweeper. Even though it was not summertime, Mahlke and Pilenz rowed out to the minesweeper with two cans of pork and a can opener. When they arrived, Mahlke removed and carefully folded his uniform, put on the Iron Cross, and, wearing his old gym shorts from the Conradium, dived into the water with the tins. Pilenz, noticing that the can opener was left behind, pounded on the side of the minesweeper, shouting, “Can opener!” There was no response.

For years afterward, Pilenz searches for Mahlke among the clowns at circuses or at reunions for recipients of the Iron Cross. He never finds Mahlke and ultimately concludes that Mahlke, the eternal mouse, finally fell prey to the eternal cat, which Pilenz perceives as a combination of forces that include school, society, the army, and Pilenz himself.

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