Tuesday, 27 May 2014

An epic, green fairy tale for the here and now

Illustration by Günter Grass
Just over a year ago, on my first trip to Lübeck, a little mystery confronted me on a visit to Günter Grass-Haus – why was one of Grass’s sculptures of a rat displayed alongside a trio of Smurfs?

As we prepared for this spring’s trip to Schleswig-Holstein, this question popped into view of the little grey cells once more.

Now I knew that Grass had penned a book called, simply The Rat – his art has frequenyl been directly connected to his writing – so I looked it up and, having found it to be out of print, bought myself a second-hand copy.

Thus it was that it accompanied me on the journey to Travemünde. And on the evening on 2 May, as we lounged in our railway cabin, heading from Paris to the German border, I let out a yelp.

For there in the pages of the novel were not only to be found plenty of Rattus rattus (not forgetting Rattus norvegicus and others), but myriad Smurfus smurfus too.

The Rat was first published in German in 1986, at around the time that Grass himself settled in Lübeck.

But while knowing this connection, I hadn’t realised that the book would itself be partly set in Lübeck and Travemünde, and encompassing the wider Baltic.

If last year’s trip had had, quite deliberately placed at its heart, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, then it became clear that this year was going to have a literary theme too – whether I’d planned it that way or not.

Grass brings so many strands together into a coherent whole – he weaves together the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tale characters, the infamous German painter-forger Lothar Malskat, who repainted the frescoes of the Marienkirche in Lübeck after WWII, and industrialists and corrupt politicians and bishops.

We also get the chance to catch up with characters from his first novel, The Tin Drum, and from the later The Flounder – it helps to be familiar with at least the first of these.

The overarching theme here, though, is an environmental one – of humanity’s crazed destruction and despoliation of the planet.

Early on, he gives an idea of the scale of the garbage that humans leave behind them – the endless mountains of trash – but in this apocalyptic novel, what eventually kills of humankind is a nuclear accident.

And who would be the natural replacement for humans once the dust has died down?

Here, it is the rats, one of whom talks constantly to the author in his dreams, relating rat history as well as what has happened since “Doomadosh”, because the author is now only a figment of ratty imagination.

Or is he?

It’s rather easy to feel that, with the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat has died away – although most of the missiles are still around and there are still plenty of  rogue states’ that might not be trusted not to use such a weapon. And that’s without mentioning the threat of chemical weaponary.

But even if readers falls into that camp, the environmental concerns are every single bit as relevant.

In the 1980s, Germans had just started to comprehend the scale of death that was visiting the country’s forests.

It was a vital wake-up call. And just a fortnight or so ago, on a cloudy Sunday, the country produced 74% of its energy needs from renewables in an illustration of how domestic policy has moved since then.

That rather makes a nonsense of the objections of those who oppose, say, the generation of wind power. But then one is reminded of Grass’s industrialists and their political and religious apologists in the novel.

The threat to the forests has not ceased, due to climate change, but action has helped to stabilise the situation.

And while the book only really touches on the pollution of seas and rivers, its references to the rubbish generated by human existence bring to mind recent reports about our trash being found in the deepest parts of the oceans, thousands of kilometers from land.

Yet the corporations that produce these poisons are reluctant to stop – evidence, were it needed, that just as Grass’s fictional industrialists are motivated only by short-sighted greed, so too are the non-fictional ones.

All is finally clear
In neither of these cases do you have to be a dyed-in-the-organic-wool eco warrior to see trouble ahead if such things are simply allowed to continue unabated.

So Grass’s novel continues to be every bit as topical as it was when written.

Quite apart from it being shameful, on the grounds of its continuing topicality, that it’s out of print (in at least some countries) it’s well near criminal on a literary basis too.

However gloomy it sounds, it somehow avoids that and is often funny and frequently endowed with a great warmth.

Yet however much control there is to the entire piece, it’s also a massive howl of rage against the prevailing insanity.

The frequent use of poetry within the text reminds one that Grass is not ‘just’ a novelist (and a sculptor and artist etc), while the tone, the language and the characterisation are simply first rate.

Even those blue and white smurfs play more than a passing role, as the book also explores the creation of religion, the death of fairy tales, rampant commercialism and the question of what is real and what is not.

For all the seriousness of its message, this is never dull or difficult, but rattles along at a cracking pace, and leaving you unsure of the eventual outcome until the very last.

In terms of scale, imagination, organisation and the sheer complexity of vision, The Rat is a staggering achievement, and one that illustrates, yet again, Grass’s genius in general, and more specifically, his command of magic realism and his gift as a storyteller.

Indeed, it’s a reminder of the power of stories too.

That I had not expected it to be directly related to the area we were visiting simply served to increase its impact.

That reading it also fell at a time of local and Europe-wide elections, where we saw widespread revealed large levels of dissatisfaction and a general misunderstanding of the key problems, while the same industrialists and their friends in big finance continue to fiddle, gave a further layer of significance to the experience.

Twenty-eight years on from its original publication, The Rat’s message is as clear and as important as ever. And in literary terms, it’s a reminder – were that needed – of the genius of Grass.

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