Set in large part during the Orwellian year of 1984 (also the Chinese “Year of the Rat” and the six hundredth anniversary of the legendary pied piper of Hamelin), The Rat is informed with an air of eschatology and doomsday. Yet it is also ironic and self-parodying, something of a swan song for Günter Grass himself because it was written as he approached the age of sixty. His previous works and their characters are here united and come full circle to their beginnings.
Oskar Matzerath-Bronski, the protagonist of Grass’s first novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), now reappears in time for his sixtieth birthday. He has become a motion-picture producer, whom the narrator engages to make a silent film about acid rain and the death of the forests.For this film, Oskar decides to parody fairy tales and the Walt Disney style, bringing together all the fairy-tale figures to save the forest from the monied interests and corrupt officials who are destroying it.
Meanwhile, Oskar’s grandmother, Anna Koljaiczek, still lives in Poland and is approaching her one hundred seventh birthday. She extends an invitation to Oskar and to the other members of her far-flung family to help her celebrate it. The visionary Oskar prepares a video in advance of the event which shows the birthday party. He and his chauffeur, Bruno, his former guard at the asylum in The Tin Drum, load his Mercedes with gifts for the Polish relatives (including a population of small toy Smurfs for the children) and set out.
Interwoven with these strands of narrative is an account of five women, including the narrator’s wife, Damroka, who embark on a scientific expedition into the Baltic Sea to study the link between pollution and a population explosion of jellyfish. Along the way, however, Damroka secretly consults with a speaking flounder, a reference to Grass’s novel Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, 1978). Off the coast near Gdansk, the women are led by the fish to the site of a legendary sunken city which was ruled by women.
Yet another narrative, also interesting to Oskar as a potential film script, concerns a certain Lothar Malskat, a painter convicted of art forgery in the 1950’s, who confessed to having completely repainted the ceilings in Gothic buildings rather than having merely restored the (almost nonexistent) originals. Oskar believes that his film about Malskat will open eyes, especially the eyes of young people, to the fraudulent nature of the whole postwar era and of its legacy, the global arms race.
Other narratives concern rats, who, having survived such calamities as Noah’s Flood, know that humanity is again bound for destruction. They, along with other natural creatures such as jellyfish, venture forth in large numbers in mute protest demonstrations. There are also cultural warning signs of imminent collapse, such as the phenomenon of punkers, children who apply cosmetics to one another so that their skin has pallor of death and who, full of presentiment, mark themselves with the green of corpses. Fittingly, they adopt rats as pets and follow various pied pipers.
In one subplot, the tale is told of the children of Hamelin led away by the pied piper. A maid of Hamelin, Gret, is impregnated by her pet rat, Hans, and gives birth to a new race of rat-humans. They travel to the same sunken city in the Baltic to which the flounder leads the women in the boat.
In the main narrative, a female rat stands on a pile of human refuse to say the human race is gone and that only its refuse survives. As the rat relates the end, “Ultimo,” as she calls it, the narrator circles the earth in a space capsule and watches the events happening before him on his video screen.
Ultimo occurs at noon on a Sunday, just as the five women on the boat are preparing to descend into the underwater city. The women and the wooden superstructure of their boat are vaporized. The steel hull drifts aimlessly across the Baltic.
The bombs fall just as Oskar’s video reaches the point at which the guests at the party are watching a video of the guests at the party watching a video. Oskar seeks refuge under the skirts of his grandmother—he has always wished to flee from evil times by returning to the womb—but he is reduced by radiation to a shriveled gnome. His grandmother lives on for a time but eventually dies, and the rats move the mummies of Oskar and his grandmother to Gdansk, placing them on the altar of St. Mary’s Church. There she becomes a kind of fertility goddess to the hungry rats, a grotesque new Virgin with Oskar as the child, the role he played in the same church in The Tin Drum.
There is, however, one final element in this nightmare. Shortly before they are vaporized, the five women dock at Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland and go ashore for the afternoon. They join a group protesting the use of animals in medical research and follow the crowd to a building on the outskirts of town. Rocks are thrown, glass is shattered, and the animals escape. The women return to their boat and cast off in haste before the police arrive, but they have left the boat unlocked.
From his vantage point in orbit, the narrator watches a hulk moving under its own power into the harbor of Gdansk, now called Danzig. When it docks, strange stowaways emerge: rat-humans are on board, a product of gene manipulations in the laboratory at Visby. Called Manippels, they are also known to the rats as Watsoncricks after the discoverers of DNA. They are blond, blue-eyed, hominoid dwarves with the heads of rats and the language of Smurfs. These monsters trace the stages of human development: They re-invent fire, drink beer, and march in formation.
Gradually, they conquer the entire area. Naturally these new hominoids begin to exploit and consume the rats and to build concentration camps for them. Strengthened by having put behind them their national and their religious differences, however, and united under the banner of the Polish labor movement Solidarity, which was taken from a museum, the rats finally eradicate this last monstrous creation of the human race.
In the end, the tale of the rat is only a dream. Oskar returns safely from Gdansk, as does Damroka. Humanity has a second chance. The narrator dreams that there may be at least a glimmer of hope that humans can act humane after all.
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