There is a motif running through the book to do with the cat and the mouse and although it initially concerns the main character Mahlke’s Adam’s apple being clawed by a cat it widens out to become about chasing other elusive goals. The most elusive of all the things the narrator wants to find, a relationship with girls being amongst them, is to drill down into the essence of Mahlke.
A group of boys spend their free time out of school swimming out to a partially sunken barge where Mahlke dives with a screwdriver round his neck to retrieve prizes from below the water. Part of the reason he wears something round his neck is because he has a particularly large Adam’s apple and he is conscious of it. Mind you he also has (using Grass’s language) a particularly large cock. Despite his heroics on the barge Mahlke is a loner and the narrator, who is a neighbour seeks and fails to try and work out what makes him tick. You do discover that Mahlke is obsessed with the Virgin Mary, steals an Iron Cross medal and gets expelled because of his attraction to wearing a medal round the neck and finally that he is tremendously successful in the tank regiment. This success is rewarded with the Knights Cross and more infamy but it fails to get him back in front of his old school to deliver a speech. In revenge Mahlke wastes his leave waiting to slap the headmaster and then goes AWOL living back on the barge. At the end the narrator visits an evening event to celebrate those who won Knight’s crosses and although Mahlke’s name is called he fails to appear.
Is it well written?
It is working on different levels and the metaphor play with the cat and mouse is easily understandable, which makes a difference compared to some authors. On another level it is a rites of passage tale for not just two boys but a war time generation that learnt names of boats that they expected to conquer the world only to hear that, like the barge, they had been sunk. It shows the awe that the military was able to inspire but with the narrator’s brother dying in the Russian campaign it also showed the indifference and fatalism that seemed to be growing as defeat neared. The constant focus on the Adam’s apple does grate sometimes but you can imagine that if you were trying to recall a boyhood friend only the exaggerated details would be memorable.
Should it be read?
It is reasonably accessible and not too daunting. It does require a commitment to get past a lot of the sometimes hard to understand desperation to find the truth of Mahlke. But ultimately this is one of those books that sits in your head and starts to unravel after it has been finished and all of the different levels and the clever repetition of themes become striking as the days since consumption pass by. It provides a taster for Grass, who regardless of the SS membership issues, is seen as one of the great modern German writers.
A boy with striking physical features manages to stand out on the battlefield for different reasons but always continues to remain an enigma to his friends.
Version read – Penguin paperback