Critical Evaluation

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1215 words.)

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