Doomsday Book

The Rat

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/ Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 371 pp., $17.95

Günter Grass’s new novel is a hectic meditation, darting and diverging in characteristic fashion, a gathering of old obsessions and newer pains, and a recall or roll call of characters from his earlier works, a roll of honor and of dishonor, an elaborate Last Post or taps for what he has created, and what he has loved, for himself, and for all of us. Yet another apocalypse, another busy Last Days of Mankind.

It is Christmas, candles burning low, a festive dinner, the cracking of nuts, happy children…. In a homely beginning, the narrator finds under the Christmas tree the present he asked for: a rat, a she-rat. Pretty smartly the She-rat is talking to him, seemingly in his dreams, arguing with him, and getting the better of him. When two by two the other animals entered the ark—she tells him—her people were turned away by Noah, despite divine instructions. They were taken into God’s hand, so to speak, where they quickly procreated; and, finding hiding places for themselves, stopped-up passages under the drowned earth, they were firmly established by the time the waters sank and the ark discharged its coddled cargo. As they survived that great flood, so they will survive the great fire next time. Indeed—for time is elastic here, running freely backward and forward—they have done so. This, the rat insists, is the posthuman era.

The rats have, or had, considerable admiration for mankind, “so lovable, so spontaneous, by definition prone to error.” What most of all distinguished man was that he walked erect, albeit in strange paths; and the She-rat divulges that she wishes rats could blush, as man did, though usually for absurd reasons. (This is Grassian whimsy: rats have nothing much to blush for.) How deeply the rats regret that man has finished himself off: for one thing, rats need human beings to tell stories, many of them, like the affair of the Pied Piper, featuring rats. The She-rat oozes compassion: her people did their utmost to alert man to the peril he was in, by staging demonstrations in almost human fashion, scurrying in hordes through city streets, round and round Red Square, the White House, the Champs-Elysées, Trafalgar Square. But all in vain: man was united only in putting an end to himself.

Although there was no Noah’s ark this time, one man is left alive, orbiting in an observation satellite. And he, necessarily, is the narrator, “you, full of stories and curly-headed lies, you, our friend, faithfully preserving the image of man for us.” And so the stories tumble desperately out, a little of this one and then a little of that one, as tenuously connected as events and circumstances in an obituary.

Nothing has been heard of Oskar Matzerath since he reached his thirtieth year, since The Tin Drum, but now he returns, on the brink of sixty, still small and humpbacked, suffering from prostate trouble, “a common taxpayer,” a prosperous business man with a large office, a villa, and…

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