The Rat

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

After the publication of his novel HEADBIRTHS: OR, THE GERMANS ARE DYING OUT, which appeared in German in 1981 and in English translation a year later, Gunter Grass said that he was giving up fiction-writing. The subsequent publication of THE RAT does nothing to contradict that pronouncement.

This rambling jeremiad begins on Christmas Eve, when Grass (who is himself the narrator and, in a manner of speaking, the protagonist) finds a present under the tree, the fulfillment of a seemingly whimsical wish: a female rat, gray-brown, one of the common variety rarely stocked by pet stores (“please not a white one with red eyes, not a laboratory rat”), in a tidy cage with all the appurtenances. Thus, instead of the Christ child in the manger, there is a She-rat (as Grass calls her) in a litter of wood shavings; instead of a joyful promise, there is a death-knell.

In a sense, the She-rat is Virgil to Grass’s Dante, but the hell through which she guides him is strictly an earthly one. In a series of bleak visions, she shows him how humankind finally destroyed itself, leaving the world to the rats. Mingled with these visions are phantasmagoric scenes featuring characters from classic fairy tales and from earlier novels by Grass; also, at intervals throughout the book, there are poems--which, however they sound in German, are flat and soon tedious in English.

There is a great falling off from the volcanic energy of THE TIN DRUM to the...

(The entire section is 413 words.)