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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Cat and Mouse is a 1961 novella originally written in German by Nobel Prize winning novelist Günter Grass. It is the second installment in his Danzig Trilogy: it is a sequel to Grass’s controversial masterpiece The Tin Drum and a prequel to Dog Years. The novel tells the story of Joachim Mahlke, an ordinary young boy with an extraordinary Adam’s apple, who becomes a hero in a nation torn apart by violence and fascism.

The beginning of the novel immediately showcases Grass’s masterful ability to incorporate symbols that carry a deep meaning.

. . . and one day, after Mahlke had learned to swim, we were lying in the grass, in the Schlagball field. I ought to have gone to the dentist, but they wouldn't let me because I was hard to replace on the team. My tooth was howling. A cat sauntered diagonally across the field and no one threw anything at it. A few of the boys were chewing or plucking at blades of grass. The cat belonged to the caretaker and was black . . . It was a young cat, but no kitten.

In this quote, the cat is a metaphor of the antagonist, or in this case the Nazi society in the Second World War. Grass describes it as a young society, but certainly not innocent. Another interesting metaphor is Mahlke’s throat, which is symbolic of the victim, or the civilians and the ordinary people who try to preserve their humanity in an age of war and political violence.

Mahlke's Adam's apple attracted attention because it was large, always in motion, and threw a shadow. Between me and Mahlke the caretaker's black cat tensed for a leap. We formed a triangle. My tooth was silent and stopped marking time: for Mahlke's Adam's apple had become the cat's mouse.

He was not a thing of beauty. He could have had his Adam's apple repaired. Possibly that piece of cartilage was the whole trouble. But it went with the rest of him. Besides, you can't prove everything by proportions. And as for his soul, it was never introduced to me. I never heard what he thought. In the end, all I really had to go by was his neck and its numerous counterweights. . . . But this can only be taken as one more reminder of his mouse, for the mouse chewed insatiably.

Cat and Mouse is considered one of Grass’ most captivating and enigmatic novels. It is widely praised for its intelligent and philosophical narrative, its well-developed plot-line and its witty and authentic rhetoric.

It was the old story of the spot that found no takers, kind of grisly-moral and transcendent; for the empty patch of wood with its fresh fibers spoke more eloquently than the chipped inscription. Besides, your message must have spread with the shavings, for in the barracks, between kitchen, guardroom, and dressing room, stories as tall as a house began to go around, especially on Sundays when boredom took to counting flies. The stories were always the same, varying only in minor detail.

Throughout the novel, the narrator, Pilenz, openly shows his fascination with Mahlke. He never exaggerates with his descriptions, but it’s obvious that he notices even the smallest of details in his best friend’s behavior.

Mahlke was an only child.
Mahlke was half an orphan.
Mahlke's father was dead.
Winter and summer Mahlke wore old-fashioned high shoes which he must have inherited from his father.
He carried the screwdriver around his neck on a shoelace for high black shoes.

. . . Mahlke was a good student,...

(This entire section contains 884 words.)

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though not at the head of the class. He was—and this detracted slightly from the merit of his performance—a year older than the rest of us . . .

Mahlke couldn't joke. He sometimes tried. But everything he did, touched or said, became solemn, significant, monumental;

I forgot to say that Mahlke was by nature an eater—and when the can was half empty, he held out the can to us, invitingly but not overbearingly.

. . . and I admired you, though you were not trying to arouse my admiration. No, Mahlke was never an eager beaver.

This is an interesting element of the novel, as in the end we realize that this was Pilenz’s way of showing remorse for being a (in)direct accomplice in his best friend’s death. Thus, the novel ends with this revealing and intriguing monologue:

Who will supply me with a good ending? For what began with cat and mouse torments me today in the form of crested terns on ponds bordered with rushes… Men go down with flashing, slightly battered helmets, men rise to the surface. Arms are held out toward them, the helmet is unscrewed, removed: but never does the Great Mahlke light a cigarette on the flickering screen; it's always somebody else who lights up…

I may as well add that in October 1959 I went to Regensburg to a meeting of those survivors of the war who, like you, had made Knight's Cross. They wouldn't admit me to the hall. Inside, a Bundeswehr band was playing, or resting between pieces. During one such intermission, I had the lieutenant in charge of the order squad page you from the music platform: "Sergeant Mahlke is wanted at the entrance." But you didn't show up. You didn't surface.