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Günter Grass: Die Rättin (The Rat)

Grass has never made any secret of his political views and many of his books, both fiction and non-fiction, are political diatribes. Because he is a first-class novelist, he can mix his diatribes into his fiction and create a work of art. In this one, he is concerned about environmental issues and the future of man. There are several narratives at work in this novel and they all mix in and concern the main idea of environmental degradation. The main story concerns the eponymous rat. In fact, as the German makes clear, she is a female rat. The book starts with the narrator – presumably Grass himself – asking his wife for a rat as a Christmas present. At first reluctant, she accepts that if that is what he wants, then that is what he will get. He gets his (female) rat but then starts to see her in his dreams and she tells him the full story about rats and humans. She points out that rats have been around since the Cretaceous era and were contemporary with the dinosaurs and therefore long preceded humans. Indeed, she points out, they will also outlast humans. She is bitter about human treatment of rats, starting with Noah’s refusal to take rats on his ark. She points out that rats are essentially clean animals while humans are dirty and will be remembered only for their huge piles of rubbish. Because of this rubbish and because of their ability to devour all human reading matter, rats are extraordinarily knowledgeable about humans and human activity. And they know that humans will die out and rats will survive.

It’s not all rats. Grass sends his wife (or a character resembling her) and four other women off on a trip on a ship, apparently to look at the sudden increase in jellyfish, presumably caused by pollution but, in fact, to find the legendary feminist city of Vineta. Oskar Mazerath, from Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), now sixty and a film-maker, reappears, celebrating his grandmother’s 107th birthday and making a film about acid rain and the characters of the Brothers Grimm fighting the powers that cause the acid rain. We also meet Lothar Malskat, who had claimed to restore the frescoes in the Marienkirche in Lübeck, which were destroyed in the war but had, in fact, painted new ones of his own. For Grass, he is, along with various politicians, the symbol of the corruption of modern Germany. But it is the rats or, rather, a new rat-people breed, that win out, leaving the rest of us blown away and Grass, once again, has given us a novel telling us of all that is wrong. As a gifted story-teller, he just about makes it work but it is not easy reading.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1987 by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich
Translated by Ralph Manheim