I will admit upfront that novels of teenage angst are meaningless to me. I was as dumbfounded by the cult of J. D. Salinger’s vapid Cather in the Rye in my adolescence as I am now in my near-dotage. So when a friend passed along Cat and Mouse, by Gunter Grass, I approached it with trepidation.
On the plus side, the young men in Cat and Mouse have a little more on their plate than did poor old Holden Caulfield: World War II, the rise of Nazism, navigating the Hitler Youth, and that thing about girls. How could it not be more interesting?
Well … it is and it isn’t. While Grass avoids the relentless-navel-gazing-game he loses ground with the obscurity-is-profundity gambit. The novel concerns a teenage outsider named Mahlke, who manages to perform many feats both strange and wonderful to the delight and bewilderment of the young men around him. Mahlke is a great swimmer, and has gone so far as to create (we are told) a secret room for himself in the hull of a sunken submarine. He can hoodwink teachers, is capable of remarkable feats of endurance, is something of an athlete and, of course, has an unusually large penis.
Unfortunately Mahlke (his friends dub him “the Great Mahlke”) is as much Jimmy Olson as Clark Kent. He has an abnormally large Adam’s apple, and he often wears freakish neckwear to cover it (everything from bowties made of ping pong balls to screwdrivers hanging from shoelaces). In addition, he has a major predilection for the Cult of the Virgin, and is often found prostrate before images of the Mother of Christ.
Sadly, what adds additional confusion to this hodgepodge of grotesque character detail is that our narrator (who does not name himself until nearly 50 pages into this slim volume) is unreliable. He tells one story, then backtracks and questions whether it is the correct version or not. Indeed, he cannot even remember the details of his own life; when a schoolteacher is arrested (“probably for political reasons”), the still unnamed narrator writes: “Some of the students were questioned. I hope I didn’t testify against him.” This type of literary guessing game is for more patient, forgiving readers than I.
What saves Cat and Mouse from being a total mess is the overarching sense of guilt with which Grass infuses every page. Our narrator is consumed with guilt over everything: the way his life has turned out, the eventual fate of Mahlke, the end of his boyhood, indeed, the very course of Germany and the war itself. Readers in the United States have not yet had to grapple with the kind of national guilt that plagued Grass and his generation (though I suspect upcoming generations will notice the collective blood on our hands all too well), and it strikes a note not often found in our literature. But what Grass has done with Cat and Mouse is to present a grim meditation on heroism, and to show that this precious commodity can be made squalid and rancid by war and national guilt.
This pervasive theme was no doubt borne of the very real guilt felt by Grass himself. Grass was born in 1927, and at the beginning of his meteoric literary career indicated that he was too young and too uninvolved to be an active part of Hitler’s Germany. However, in an August 2006 interview, Grass admitted that he was a member of the Waffen-SS, an essential part of the Nazi party and its key instrument in committing war crimes.
Grass has spent his life after the war in left wing and pacifist causes and violently opposed the reunification of Germany. Perhaps Grass, like the narrator of Cat and Mouse, has never been able to feel free from a sense of guilt.