The Rat

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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 ill-focused ranting of THE RAT. Grass’s writing has become slipshod; it is hard to make art from impatience and disgust. Perhaps Grass would reply that “art” is irrelevant in the face of neutron bombs, genetic engineering, and the wholesale pollution of the environment (some of the most powerful passages in THE RAT are those which describe Germany’s ravaged forests), but in serving up this mix of prophecy and all-too-predictable social commentary, he has created an artifact perfectly suited to the consumer society he despises: a book the value of which resides solely in its brand name, marketable as “the new Gunter Grass.”

Bibliography

Butler, G.P. “The End of the World, and After,” in The Times Literary Supplement. April 4, 1986, pp. 35-36.

Hospital, Janette Turner. “Postfuturum Blues,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (July 5, 1987), p. 6.

Keele, Alan Frank. Understanding Günter Grass, 1987.

O’Neill, Patrick. “Grass’s Doomsday Book: Die Rattin,” in Critical Essays on Günter Grass, 1987.

Vormweg, Heinrich. Günter Grass, 1986.

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