Cat and Mouse by Gunter Grass

Cat and  Mouse by Gunter Grass is the story of a schoolboy, Mahlke, told through the eyes of one of his peers, Pilenz, who is Mahlke’s fellow classmate, altar boy and would be friend.

The story starts during the second world war in Germany, when the boys are entering their teenage years. They live in Danzig, which is on the Baltic Sea, and with their friends, regularly swim out to and hang around a sunken ship in the harbour. At first Mahlke begs to come along with the other boys, but very soon he the best diver of them all, able to bring up treasures from the ship and is admired by them all.

Mahlke is extremely competitive. He pushes himself until he can do the most knee-springs at school, although his form is not so good as the school gymnastic champion’s, and he alone is able to dive far enough into the superstructure of the sunken ship to create a haven inside an air pocket within the ship, furnishing it with a gramphone player and records and decorations which he swims over to the ship from the shore.

The other boys, particularly Pilenz, hero worship Mahlke and at some point he becomes ‘the Great Mahlke.’ 

The boys also admire the war heroes who visit their school to address them. Mahlke sees these men as competition for his hero status and during one speech, steals a medal belonging to one of these men.

There is a feeling of unease throughout the whole book. Mahlke’s father is dead, he lives with his mother and aunt and he is obsessed with the Virgin in the Catholic church. He is strange looking with an enormous Adam’s apple. In the beginning of the story, Pilenz sets a cat onto Mahlke’s Adam’s apple, which the cat thinks is a mouse. Although Pilenz and the other boys are obsessed with Mahlke, he is always separate from them and I felt that while they hero worshipped him, they didn’t actually like him.

As time goes on Mahlke joins the Labour Service and from there, he joins a Battalion and, as expected by Pilenz, became a war hero who won the Knight’s Cross, and earns the reputation of having had an affair with the commander’s wife.

The book ends with Mahlke being unable to live up to himself either, and he becomes the mouse.

I didn’t enjoy this book. Cat and Mouse would probably be called good literature by people who know more than me, (the edition I read was published by Penguin, which is usually an indication of a good book), but good literature is not always enjoyable to read. I found the story to be very depressing and wouldn’t read another book by Gunter Grass.

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