An Outcast Hero
LIKE MANY ANOTHER EUROPEAN writer who grew up under Adolf Hitler, German Novelist Günter Grass, 36, is a man shadowed by the cruelty and grotesquerie of life. The groans and squeaks, the howls and primitive chuckles of his first hero, a prurient dwarf named Oskar Mazerath, made Grass's The Tin Drum the most powerful first novel to come out of Germany in a generation.
In his second book Grass has turned to another grotesque—a gawky adolescent named Joachim Mahlke who is afflicted by a quivering excrescence of flesh over his Adam's apple. But if Grass still views life largely as a kind of Gothic sideshow, he permits himself, as he did not in the earlier book, a saving touch of human compassion. As a dwarf who had seceded from the adult world in order to survive in it, Oskar remained a skeptical spectator of absurdity. Through the muted and melancholy chronicle of Mahlke's brief life, Grass seems to say that deformed or not, man can burn with the likeness of a shapely aspiration. Pettiness is sometimes graced by pity.
Always an Outcast. When Mahlke is 14 and dozing beside an athletic field, a classmate thrusts a playful kitten on his "mouse"—the word he uses throughout the book to describe his swollen Adam's apple. Mahlke becomes savagely self-conscious about the mouse. In winter, he fixes his scarf high over it with a safety pin and constantly reaches up with his hand to be sure the scarf is in place. In summer, he spends as much time as possible in swimming so the mouse will be invisible under water. Struggling in other ways against the teasing derision of his clannishly normal classmates, he makes himself the best gymnast in the school, as well as the best swimmer, diver and the best student. The war is on. Mahlke resolves to win the Iron Cross, Germany's highest military honor. But no matter what he does he remains an outcast—sometimes inspiring awe, but never inspiring acceptance.
Prayers of Praise. Grass's bizarre title is an invitation to read his book as a restricted fable for two—the cruel cat of collective human conformity endlessly toying with the mouse of an individual's deformity. But Grass has set the jaws of his literary mousetrap much wider than that. Just as a straight chronicle of the sometimes nasty habits and high hopes of boyhood, his story should become a minor classic like Kipling's Stalky & Co., Alain Fournier's romantic pre-World War I The Wanderer, and John Knowles' A Separate Peace. No one, at any rate, excels Grass in one prerequisite for writing about adolescence—an eye for the entirely incongruous and often grimy details. On a half-submerged minesweeper in Danzig harbor, Mahlke and his classmates cheerfully chew dried seagull droppings and spit them contentedly into the sea. The next moment, before diving to explore the sunken hulk, Mahlke is reverently humming prayers of praise to the Virgin Mary.
As in The Tin Drum, religious symbolism pervades the book. Again and again, the narrator—the boy who originally threw the cat on Mahlke's mouse, and who suffers from a feeling that he has betrayed Mahlke—refers to Mahlke's "sorrowful, sallow Redeemer's countenance." And the brooding sense of loss and desolation that runs through the book suggests that Grass may be trying to shape a Christ figure suitable for a deformed and shadowed age.