Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
After World War II, the spiritual recovery of Germany lagged far behind its economic recovery, and nowhere was this lag more apparent than in the failure of German literature to regain the eminence it had attained before the war in the work of such authors as Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Hermann Hesse. These writers and many others diagnosed the spiritual malaise of the society, which reached its culmination in the horrors of the Nazi regime. In the 1960’s, the emergence of several writers of the first rank indicated a spiritual rebirth in Germany. Perhaps the most notable of these young writers, certainly the most heralded, was Günter Grass, whose first novel, Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), established him as a major figure in the postwar rehabilitation of German literature. In Cat and Mouse, his second novel, he reinforces his claim to that status by perceptively probing into what was continuing to ail the German spirit.
Although narrated in 1961 by an adult named Pilenz, who works as a secretary for a parish settlement house, Cat and Mouse is set in the years during World War II, when Pilenz was a teenager and schoolboy. Caught up in the dull round of secular life in postwar Germany and poignantly aware of a great spiritual emptiness in his world (he is a Catholic who has lost his belief in God), Pilenz feels compelled to tell the story of his boyhood friend Joachim Mahlke, who disappears, after deserting the army, by diving into a sunken minesweeper where they played as boys and where Mahlke has a secret retreat. Though fifteen years have elapsed since then, Pilenz has looked for Mahlke ever since and everywhere he can possibly appear; he has never given up hope that his friend will “resurface.” Cat and Mouse is dedicated, as it were, to resuscitating the spirit of Mahlke and thereby to rediscovering a spiritual basis for German life and art.
The resuscitation—that is, Pilenz’s writing of the novel—is a complicated matter. Time has dimmed and confused his memory, so his story is as much a reconstruction of the past as a recollection of it; it is as much the re-creation of Mahlke, and of that part of himself Mahlke represents, as it is memory. A self-conscious artist, Pilenz realizes that his story, written out of inner necessity, is like all art: a fusion of reality and imagination. What he remembers most vividly, providing him with a grip on the past and himself, is a boyhood scene in which he or one of his friends—he remembers it differently each time he returns to it—encouraged a black cat to pounce on Mahlke’s mouse, that is, his Adam’s apple, while he lay asleep. About this fablelike incident, Pilenz constructs his tale of how the beast of death eventually kills Mahlke’s mouse. Cat and Mouse is a definition and revival of the spiritual qualities that were lost with Mahlke’s disappearance, the dialogue of recollection being a way of making him reappear to the narrator and his public.
Endowed with an abnormally large and active Adam’s apple and lacking physical grace, Mahlke is an unnoticed figure among the children of the neighborhood until at the age of fourteen he learns to swim. Thereafter, he is a moral force—leading them to the sunken boat, diving into dangerous depths, staying beneath the surface for long periods while collecting trophies, and being modest and considerate. He is not, however, nature’s darling: Besides being clumsy in looks and manner, he never tans, and the cold water chills him blue and coarsens his skin. Furthermore, he has no interest in girls or in displays of virility. Rather, he is driven by self-consciousness to use the power with which he is blessed to hide his Adam’s apple, to redeem his natural being and shortcomings. For that purpose, he devotes himself to self-transcending ideals, represented alternately by the Virgin Mother and military heroes. These provide him with religious idols before which he can kneel in purifying devotion.
Growing up audience-conscious, Mahlke originally wants to be a clown so that he can make people laugh and help them be happy, but the Catholic Church, the German state through its heroes and schools, and the war sap his faith and channel his power toward destructive ends. Eventually, he who had been called the Redeemer by a classmate caricaturist is refused recognition for his military exploits by the school that had taught him that heroes are made by slaughter in the name of the state, and he is led to betray his initial religious and humanistic impulses by the pressure of social and political circumstances. Frustrated in his aspiration to reveal the truth to schoolchildren, he is left with nothing in which to believe, with no honorable task to perform. His disappearance into the minesweeper comes as a final gesture of knowledge and repudiation, perhaps an awareness of his inability to hide his Adam’s apple, certainly a recognition of the inability of his society to harbor his spiritual talents and aspirations or to acknowledge their source. His is the hero’s dilemma: He is the victim of the contradictions between his inordinate desire to serve and the refusal of the common order to tolerate him and his idol.
The disappearance and absence of the heroic are what ails Germany in Günter Grass’s diagnosis. It is not, however, the loss of the traditional heroes that he laments. What Grass resuscitates is the Christian-chivalric vision in which masculine power is bound in service to feminine tenderness, in which nature is tamed and saved from its inherent evil through devotion to purifying spiritual values, and in which the magnetism of love replaces domination by tyrannical force.
Mahlke’s ultimate defeat hinges on the triviality of a medal stolen from a war hero at school, a circumstance that at first glance seems a narrative weakness but is actually the novel’s strength. Though in places the novel is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s allegory and Thomas Mann’s irony, the demoniac powers that haunt and doom the characters in the works of those writers are conspicuously absent in Cat and Mouse. Pilenz, though he cannot be sure he incited the cat to pounce on Mahlke’s mouse, knows he is implicated in his disappearance and so writes out of guilt, using art as a vehicle to redeem his sin. Recognition of what he has lost, of how far he has fallen, implies a spiritual awakening sufficient for the first steps toward freedom from necessity and from the bondage of the past. Grass’s fablelike story, with its blend of symbolism and irony with realism, expresses the power of the imagination to transform the “real.” Only by forgetting enough of the past can Pilenz entertain ideals again; only by believing in the spiritual origins and power of art, as Mahlke believes in the Virgin Mother, is genuine art again possible. Lyric and comic as well as tragic, the novel expresses Grass’s belief that the German spirit can again face its past, avoid possession by its demons, and be aware of the spiritual power and transcendent values necessary for a truly new and healthy life.