The Norwegian Rat

by Naguib Mahfouz

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

Mr. A. M., the senior householder in an urban apartment house, calls a tenants’ meeting in his flat to discuss the threat posed by an acute rat infestation that they are expecting. The media, both print and broadcast, have warned about the scope and destruction likely to follow the invading rodents. Reportedly, the aggressive rats are attacking even cats and humans. Accordingly, Mr. A. M. tells the ten tenants in attendance that they should meticulously carry out both his instructions and those from the authorities regarding preparations to meet the threat. He urges them to set traps, spread rat poison, and to have as many cats as possible in the stairwell, on the roof, and even in their apartments because cats are useful no matter what.

The source of the rat infestation is a matter for speculation. Some suggest that the rats originated from the evacuated Suez Canal towns, which were heavily shelled by Israeli guns positioned on the eastern bank of the waterway in 1969 and 1970 during the War of Attrition. Others believe that the explosion of the rat population is a negative consequence of the Aswan High Dam, which affected the irrigation canal networks downstream. Another suggestion is that the surge in the rat population is due to bad public administration. Some attribute the problem to Allah’s anger on account of his servants’ refusal to accept divine guidance.

At a subsequent tenants’ meeting in the building, Mr. A. M. expresses satisfaction with the residents’ preparations, though some of them complain about the expense of feeding the numerous felines. New rat poison ground up in corn is to be distributed, Mr. A. M. announces, warning the tenants to protect their children, pets, and poultry (often kept on roofs or verandas in Egyptian urban areas). However, in the meantime, the anticipation—indeed, the dread—fueled by some earlier horror stories is causing tension and even taking control of people’s lives. The threat comes to dominate the tenants’ other existential worries, their conversations, and even their dreams.

At the third tenants’ meeting, Mr. A. M. reports progress in their preparations to confront the rats. He relays the expressed gratification of the governor at these measures. He gives further directives about the need to seal windows, doors, and any other openings and possible points of entry. Although he tries to pacify some tenants’ complaints about the restraints that these measures impose on them, some of the tenants are bothered by weariness, boredom, and depression, which affect their domestic relations.

Soon, the government inspector from a previously announced team of experts shows up and gives the building’s preparations a passing grade, commenting favorably on the large number of cats roaming around, even in the garage. A week later, the official returns to inspect the narrator’s apartment. The civil servant inspector is a middle-aged man with a thick mustache and a glassy stare and reminds the narrator of a cat, a resemblance that he considers appropriate under the circumstances. The official finds only a minor deficiency. However, because the apartment is now redolent of the meal just prepared by the narrator’s wife, the inspector’s compliments trigger an invitation to partake. The inspector sits down and begins to wolf down his lunch with extraordinary voracity. When the narrator returns to serve another helping, the tenant is struck by the appearance of the official’s face: It is now reminiscent of a Norwegian rat. The dazed narrator returns to his wife and asks her to look in on the man. She, too, is dumbfounded by his facial metamorphosis while gobbling down the food. Soon, a cheerful blessing by the inspector sounds from the hallway. When the departing figure turns around to bid the couple goodbye, he gives a “fleeting Norwegian smile.”

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