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 a Mercedes. From making porn videos he has moved on to educational cassettes; he looks forward to the day when, thanks to the media, we shall be able to create reality in advance of its arrival. Covert allusions are made to Matzerath’s past, for instance his “glass-oriented exploits.” Invited by his grandmother, Anna Koljaiczek, she of the long and commodious skirts, to her 107th birthday party, he is driven by his chauffeur—Bruno, erstwhile his keeper in a mental hospital—to Gdansk and on to Kashubia, and a family reunion, or family farewell.
Then there is the largely pointless account of five females, to all of whom the narrator is attached by long threads and short, who are investigating jellyfish infestation in the western Baltic from The New Ilsebill, a ship named after the greedy wife of the fisherman who caught a talking flounder. The fish-hero of Grass’s The Flounder, it will be remembered, rejected the Grimm version of events as mere misogyny, and rehabilitated Ilsebill. He surfaces again, but—perhaps he is disinclined to compete with the garrulous rodent—only to inform the women that the end is near.
The story of Lothar Malskat, the honest forger of “Gothic” paintings, is a parable about the currency reform of 1948, prosperity founded on falsification, and the creation of two “phony” German states, each associated with one of the victorious camps, the Western or the Eastern. Where they were concerned, the She-rat says, “Germany was never split in two, it was one good feed.” Malskat is sent to prison whereas, in that “era of winking, of appearances, of whitewashing,” Ulbricht and Adenauer, perpetrators of a double forgery, get off scotfree. So angry is Grass about this, a subject touched on lightly in Headbirths and The Meeting at Telgte, that he begins to bully the reader and forfeits credibility.
The dislocated and tangled narratives make arduous reading, more so than in Grass’s greener days; and as soon as the narrator finishes an installment of one of his ongoing stories, or simply stops to draw breath, the She-rat resumes her nagging, armed at times with chalk, blackboard, and pointer. “You should have learned from your mistakes. You should have this, you should have that.” Mercifully, she seems not to have heard of AIDS. Taking refuge in his tales (or lies), or asserting himself through self-cannibalization, the narrator persists in disbelieving her—“It’s all a pack of lies. There hasn’t been any Big Bang”—and claiming that mankind can still save itself. He is under the impression that he is sitting in an armchair or perhaps strapped in a wheelchair at home.
The She-rat advances alternative accounts of how the second Big Bang came about. First: rat droppings in the central computers of both the Western and the Eastern Protector Powers triggered off the first strikes; a face-saving theory had it that this was contrived by a third power, conceivably the Jews. Second: each side trained laboratory mice to paralyze the other’s command computer, but instead the mice started the countdown. Third: it was the rats, after all, who entered the computers via the sewage system and substituted their own countdown program, later set off by the code word “Noah.” Four: up there in his space capsule, the technically benighted narrator initiated proceedings by inadvertently feeding footage from end-of-the-world science fiction movies into the Western and Eastern terminals. We can take our pick, though we may feel tempted by a fifth interpretation and attribute the whole business to overindulgence at Christmas.
As is commonly the case with Grass, there is plenty of what one takes to be bona fide documentation, even though it is the She-rat who declares that in “the last year of human history” breeders in Wilmington, Delaware, produced eighteen million laboratory rats for the domestic and foreign markets, netting a profit of thirty million dollars. And the public issues are here, heaps of them: Germany’s postwar amnesia, garbage disposal, pensions, the butter mountain, immigration problems, food shortages in Poland, Solidarity, lead in gasoline, expense accounts, unemployment, overpopulation and undernourishment, pollution, and deforestation.
This last concern generates the liveliest and most original of the four main narrative strands. Gathered in the Ginger-bread House, characters from fairy tales are worrying over acid rain and dying trees: Little Red Cap and her grandmother, the Witch, Snow White, the Frog Prince, the Wicked Stepmother, Rapunzel, Brier Rose (who is forever having to be kissed awake by her young prince, described as “a kind of male nurse”). They are joined by Hansel and Gretel, who first appear as the runaway children of the German chancellor and then merge with the figures of Störtebeker and Tulla Pokriefke, once the wartime enfants terribles of The Tin Drum (Störtebeker was the leader of the Dusters gang), Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years, and now “the unripe fruits of lasting peace.” The brother and sister have made their way through the dead forest with its garbage dumps, toxic-waste disposal sites, and off-limits military installations. Delegates are sent to Bonn, in an old Ford, to meet Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, respectively minister and undersecretary for forests, rivers, lakes, and fresh air. In a typical flash of sly humor, Rumpelstiltskin, chairman of the “Save the Fairy Tales” Committee, is careful to sign with three crosses, until Brier Rose reminds him that the gentlemen know his name. The old grandmother is presented with Volume I of the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch of 1852, a monumental dictionary of beautiful words that are soon to be heard or seen no more. All of this will provide Herr Matzerath with a fine educational film, and perhaps, since morals are in decline among the dramatis personae, a mildly naughty one.
Among much else we are treated to several new exegeses of the Hamelin legend, which can be read as (a) a political fable about people who follow their leaders like sheep; (b) a prefigurement of how the Jews were “piped out of town and exterminated like rats”; and (c) a heavily euphemized chronicle pertaining to young Gothic punks (as we should call them these days) who carried pet rats around on their shoulders or inside their shirts, offended the aldermen sorely, and were enticed into a mountain cave and walled up there. As the narrator observes, it is always easy to derive à moral from legends. And especially if you are Günter Grass, who was never one for passing up an opportunity to fantasize, to improvise and extrapolate in all directions, to turn traditions upside down, to switch from one scenario to another.
The She-rat tells of quaint life forms appearing after the Big Bang, flying snails (hardly the kind to keep a diary) and viviparous bluebottles; later she claims she made them up just to amuse her human protégé; still later she resuscitates them as authentic phenomena. Either way, literally or allegorically, they have little significance. To complicate matters further, some blond, blue-eyed rat-men arrive in Gdansk, aboard The New Ilsebill, with little curly tails yet walking erect, “programmed to start from zero and burdened by no guilt.” The female of the species is dominant. The offspring are obedient; they reproduce with gusto and they eat likewise. There is “something gratifyingly Scandinavian about their behavior, as if a certain Social Democratic quality were embedded in their genes.” They shall inherit the earth, it would appear, but conflict ensues and—in what looks like a replay of human history—the rats wipe out the hominoids.
Blind alleys and red herrings abound; subversion is itself subverted. Nothing is allowed to stay put; nothing is certain. One of the poems scattered through the book raises the question.
Could it be that both of us,
the She-rat and I,
are being dreamed, that we are the dreams
of a third species?
Grass’s inventiveness remains unsurpassed, but it can also strike us as an inability to leave well enough alone, to know when to stop. We gasp with astonishment and admiration, we groan with dismay, and at times, I fear, we yawn out of boredom.
Inconsequence, we know, is a distinguishing mark of genuine folk tales. No one wants to be seen complaining of complexity in a literary work. Order and organization may be deemed petty virtues when compared with a crowded and multifarious canvas. Yet if a book have not clarity, what does it profit us? Grass’s teeming eschatological phantasmagoria, if it does not actually appall, clouds the poor mind. These warnings—if indeed they are warnings and not obsequies—tend to create confusion, cripple rational thought, and foster despondency. Like other prophets of calamity, Grass contributes his little shove. If that’s the game, the game is up; great fun for the author, and for the reader as well, so long as the reader doesn’t take it too seriously. And, after all, I suppose we have learned not to take books too seriously.
Yet our leaders, whose duty it is to be serious, seem distinctly less reluctant than the rest of us to contemplate the Big Bang and The End, or at any rate those “losses” that no doubt the computers have already determined as being “acceptable.” When the narrator begs to be allowed to assume that, in spite of everything, some humans have survived, or will survive, and asks that “this time let us live for one another and peacefully, do you hear, gently and lovingly, as nature made us,” the She-rat replies, in the last words of the book: “A beautiful dream.” Well, if we are to be buried before—even though only just before—we are dead, then Grass is the man to undertake the job with panache, gusto, wild and gritty humor, with numbing bitterness, and with traces of pathos and more than a touch of regret.
September 24, 1987