Cat And Mouse, by Günter Grass
I have some mixed thoughts on this book, but at the same time it is a book that I found to be very striking and touching in many ways. The author won a Nobel Prize, and this book demonstrates the sort of marginality that seems to be well-regarded by those who dish out awards to would be writers of the cultural elite. Given my decidedly mixed feelings about such a crowd myself, and given the fact that this book does have more than its fair share of crudity, including one public masturbation scene that led the book to suffer attempts at banning the book due to obscenity. Yet for the most part this is a book that seems to focus more on political than personal decadence, thankfully, and belongs to a set of works where Germans (and others) wrestle over their inheritance from Nazi Germany and what it means . Here the author finds himself in the midst of his Danzig trilogy writing about an enigmatic classmate whose life brings to mind a bygone era of the author’s remembered or imagined youth.
The book is mercifully a short book of about 200 pages that does not read particularly long. The narrative is crisp, and although there are clearly some unrealistic elements, for the most part the novel is realistic fiction, far more straightforward than most of the author’s body of work at least from what I have read about it. The author smartly uses the narrator’s reflections on a childhood friend, Mahlke, who serves as the book’s titular mouse, turning from a fairly ordinary if decent child to a prankster and almost celibate devotee of the Virgin Mary to a national hero who has his own cowardly side in the face of the horrors of the Eastern Front of World War II. This novel shows the pervasive horrors of the Nazi state in Danzig and the attempts of people to maintain some degree of decency in the midst of a totalitarian state. Since Mahlke is a generally appealing protagonist and the narrator is generally appealing too, it makes the novel as a whole something that can be profitably read, especially since it is easy to imagine how one could struggle to remain human in the face of inhuman surroundings, a theme that a German who grew up during the tumultuous middle third of the 20th century would certainly be likely to think about.
For me, the most poignant part of this book is the ending, where the abrupt ending of the novel leaves the reader and the narrator with a feeling of incompleteness and a lack of finality. On the negative side, this book is one of many that shows how some people had a particularly shallow view of religion and tended not to deeply engage with issues of religiosity, an issue that is particularly rampant among European and American cultural elites. On the other hand, this book is at least generally humane. The author clearly has some lingering guilt about the German experience during World War II, and there are some comments he makes about people trying to disguise their identity, whether as ordinary people who feel compelled to act as heroes, or whether we are dealing with the Poles in and around Danzig trying to pass as more German than they are, at least until the inevitable defeat of Germany makes being a German in the region a very bad thing indeed. The author focuses mainly on the petty games and cruelties of young people, and does so convincingly, although I have to admit my own childhood was painful enough in social matters to make aspect of the novel somewhat unpleasant.
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