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Günter Grass: Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse)

The second book in Grass’ Danzig trilogy was much smaller than the other two and certainly not a great book but still interesting. It is narrated by Pilenz but is the story of Joachim Mahlke. We first meet Mahlke when the cat and mouse story gains its legend. Mahlke, Pilenz and some other schoolboys are sitting by a sports field. A cat is wandering by. Mahlke has a very prominent Adam’s apple and the cat sees it moving while Mahlke is dozing and attacks what it thinks is a mouse. From then on, Mahlke is the stuff of legend, at least at schoolboy level. He cannot swim but soon learns and, when the boys swim out to a half-sunk Polish minesweeper in the bay, it is Mahlke who is soon able to dive down into the hull and get stuff from the ship. First he gets plaques and tools but then finds canned food which, to the disgust of the other boys, he opens and eats. He finds a gramophone which he repairs and plays. Finally, he finds a cabin which only he can access where he can hide and place his stuff.

The next stage in Mahlke’s ascension to legend is his penis. When he casually removes his trunks, he is revealed to have an enormous one, so much so that the only girl with them cannot help but continually look and, later, continually asks to see it. At this stage he is only interested in one woman. He is a staunch Catholic and is devoted to the Virgin Mary. Later, however, the wife of the commandant of the military camp where he does his training will not be able to get enough of it. His legendary status continues with his reputation in school. While by no means an open rebel, he is the one most likely to do things that are against school discipline. When a former student and now war hero comes to the school and loses his Knight’s Cross, Pilenz immediately suspects Mahlke. Despite the fact that the boys are all searched, Mahlke has indeed stolen it and smuggles it out of the school. Foolishly he boasts too openly and is caught and expelled.

Pilenz loses touch with Mahlke at this stage but hears of his reputation. Apart from the commandant’s wife, there is also his prowess in the war as a tank fighter, destroying numerous (the number varies) Russian tanks. When Mahlke comes back to the school as a hero, the headmaster refuses to allow him to talk to the students, so Mahlke (with Pilenz as a witness) later beats him up. He then decides not to return to his army unit as he is fed up with the war and hides out in the minesweeper. What happens to him? We don’t know and nor does Pilenz. Grass’ skill is making Mahlke as a legend, even if only a legend for a bunch of schoolboys, while retaining his essential ordinariness. He is no Oskar Matzerath but he is still a fascinating character.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1963 by Secker & Warburg