Cat and mouse; Günter Grass
This essay focuses in Günter Grass' novel, Cat and Mouse. I will mainly talk about the ambiguity of feelings between the main characters of the novel: Pilenz and Mahlke and the symbols which represent the characters: the cat and the mouse.
The context of the work is set between 1939 and 1944, in Danzig (Germany). But the narrator, Pilenz, tells the story about Mahlke and their adolescence, some years later, when he is already an adult. Pilenz's aim of writing this story is making a kind of catharsis in order to remove a feeling of guilt. This feeling of guilt is mainly due to the fact that, his high school fellow, Mahlke, died drowned into the sea at the end of the Second World War.
Along the novel the symbolic figures of the cat and the mouse, are named constantly. The cat mainly represents the persecutor, the repressor, while the mouse represents the victim. The cat in the novel represents, for instance, the Nazis and the mouse the occupied and humiliated Poland. Pilenz and Mahlke also represent both animals: Pilenz the cat as direct or indirectly contributes to Mahlke's destruction, and the mouse that burden in his conscience plus the love and hate relationship that he feels towards Mahlke creates in him such a dependence on the latter, that turns him into the mouse. Mahlke is the mouse -an animal which is also represented by Mahlke's apple of his throat- because he is the eternal humiliated even though he keeps all the time trying to be accepted by the Nazi society, making all kind of feats to pay people's attention. Mahlke is also a cat because of the feelings of dependence and of inferiority that he awakes in Pilenz.
`The reader is not expected to share Pilenz admiration for Mahlke', due to the way Pilenz tells Mahlke's story. One may have a feeling that, when reading Pilenz's words, Mahlke's attitude is sometimes irritable, egocentric, and so on, despite often Pilenz want to deny those feelings which we perceive that he shows. Pilenz says at the beginning of the novel that the cat fell on Mahlke's throat, but that he does not remember if it fell alone, of if his friends threw it on Mahlke's neck, or if it was he himself who did it. But, does not he really remember what really happened? Or maybe he does not want to remember it? And, if it is like this, why he does not want to remember it? Because maybe he was the responsible one and he feels guilty of what would happen later to Mahlke? Because he probably contributed to Mahlke's ruin and alienation?
Many times the group of friends jokes and laughs at Mahlke, included Pilenz: `We laughed as, bluish and shivering, he crossed himself with his waterlogged fingertips, attempted to move his lips in prayer and produced a bit of Latin between chattering teeth.' They do not help him, for example, but laugh.
It is important the point about Pilenz lapsus, for example when talking about Mahlke's house. Pilenz says that Mahlke lived in Westerzeile and then he change her mind saying that he lived in Osterzeile, but then he starts to described the house, the block on detail, what makes one wonders, how can he has such a lapsus, however he remembers that well the place? And Pilenz lived in the Westerzeile, so committing such a mistake regarding his own house is quite odd.
Pilenz is obsessed with Mahlke; we can see this throughout the book. He criticizes and flatters Mahlke, he helps and betrays him, he admires and get on his nerves when he is with him. These acts reflect the love-hate feelings Pilenz feels towards Mahlke. Sometimes Pilenz feels compassion towards Mahlke and sometimes Pilenz sees Mahlke as a clown. From the beginning of the novel to the moment when Mahlke decides to become a war hero, from the moments he wears the iron cross, which Pilenz is unable to call by its name, Pilenz can feel admiration about him, sometimes even jealousy, because Mahlke is always the centre. However, from those moments on, Pilenz's feelings towards Mahlke are compassion, rejection and some other.
Why these negatives feelings of Pilenz towards Mahlke? Maybe the way Mahlke wants to be integrated -in the band of friends, in the Comradium, in Nazi society- is trying to be the centre of attention. This attitude wakes up in Pilenz two kind of feelings, admiration and rage, for instance, we can see this in this passage: `Of course we admired Mahlke; but in the eerie din our admiration shifted into its opposite, and we thought him so repulsive we couldn't look at him. Then as a low-lying freighter hove into view, we felt moderately sorry at him...' we find a mixture of feelings towards him.
The way Pilenz says that when Mahlke tries to pay the attention of everybody is without arrogance: `Usually he made a disparaging gesture, which brought him applause. He wasn't one for brag.' So one could think that the way he tried to pay attention was subconscious, but then, later, Pilenz claims that when he was at church, he looked at Mahlke who prayed without blinking or that maybe Mahlke did not blink when Pilenz looked at him. So what did Pilenz mean saying this? Did he mean that Mahlke pretended his delightedness when praying to cause admiration in Pilenz or whoever who looked at him? If this is so, maybe he consciously tried to pay others' attention.
Mahlke's interest in being accepted is focused in the Comradinum, and he sees this opportunity when the two ex students of the institute give the conference, when he steals the iron cross, when he is expelled by head teacher Klohse for having stolen it, and he decides to join army. Why does Mahlke tell Klohse that he stole the cross, if Klohse was one of those who most repressed the mouse? Could maybe be on a desperate way of paying attention? And what about Pilenz attitude towards Mahlke's expelling? Pilenz tried to convince Mahlke not to give back the iron cross, or at least not telling it to Klohse because he knew Mahlke would be expelled. It is also remarkable that from the moment Mahlke steals the iron cross, Pilenz starts to call him the `Great Mahlke'. Why does he call him that way? Admiringly? Ironically? Or maybe both?
Another point from the novel is the matter of the friendship between Pilenz and the band, and Mahlke. On the one hand, Pilenz says several times that they did not understand Mahlke's inner: “What's the matter with him?”/ “I think he's a bit touched.”/ “Maybe it's got something to do with his father's death”/ “And what about all that ironmongery on his neck?” `We racked our brains and we coldn't understand you', or when Pilenz claims: `And as for his soul, it was never introduced to me. I never heard what he thought.' On the other hand, although Pilenz and the rest of the band often talk and rely on Mahlke from the moment he learnt to swim, his integration in the band as real friend is doubtful. Sometimes he seems to be closer to their friendship and others he becomes again alienated by them: `”Let me come with you, I can swim now,” Mahlke had one pleaded. And now it was Schilling, Winter and myself who pestered him: “Oh, come along. It's not funny without you...”.' Now they called him, but were it because they treated him as a friend or just because they could have fun at his expense? `I alone could be termed his friend, if it was possible to be friends with Mahlke. Anyway I made every effort. But why speak of effort?' Difficulty for Pilenz to consider Mahlke a real friend.
A Mahlke's attitude that could get on Pilenz's nerves, or that the reader could also perceive, was that Mahlke always made the opposite of what the rest of people did probably when with that he could become the centre of attention or Pilenz attention. We can see this in the masturbation episode. All the young boys let Tulla masturbate them except from him. One day, she manages to do it to him, but as Mahlke seemed destined for paying attention, he turned out to have the biggest member of all the boys of the band, so once again they were impressed.
From the moment Mahlke started to go to the new school, when expelled from the Comradinum, he, according to Pilenz, has started to change. Pilenz, who began to go to church again to be able to see Mahlke, said that from that moment on, Mahlke was changing, he was becoming fatter, he ate a lot, he became uglier, he talked more, his hair became longer. Pilenz says that Mahlke really looked like Christ, that Mahlke idolized Virgin Mary on a way which bordered on pagan idolatry. One day Mahlke tells Pilenz that he wants to go to fight in the front. Mahlke sends letters to his family in where Mahlke drew tanks. Pilenz claims that Mahlke did not use to draw before; maybe this is another Mahlke's trial of paying attention. One perceives that these changes in Mahlke dislike Pilenz, he sees him as clown, he repeats several times that Mahlke was fatter, one can feel the great ugliness with which Pilenz describes him: `Blackheads on fleshy nose. Lowered eyelids traversed by fine red veins'. When Mahlke comes back from the front as a hero, he wants to go to the Comradinum, to show them that he is a winner, he even prepare some words to make a conference. This will be his last attempt to integrate in society, as in Nazi society, people was seen like winner when they became war heroes. Pilenz claims that Mahlke's mouse is sleeping, maybe because Mahlke feels more self-confident, because he feels that being a war hero, would finally be accepted in the Comradinum, especially by head teacher Klohse, to whom Pilenz called the `stuffed cat'. Mahlke goes to talk Mr. Klohse, who refuses to let him give the conference as he has not forgiving him for having stolen the commandant's cross. Pilenz reaction to Mahlke's rejection is saying: `Nasty little triumph! Once again I enjoyed my moment of superiority. Just wait and see! He can't won't can't give in. I'll help him.' Pilenz mixture of feelings again: superiority, pity. There is no solution, no solace for Mahlke. Pilenz spends the rest of his time, till Mahlke's end, with him. They two go to have a walk, they meet Klohse down the street, and possessed by fury, Mahlke hit Klohse in his face. However, they two go on walking, and Mahlke does not say anything about the incident, but Mahlke just talk and talk. Pilenz gets irritated on listening Mahlke's words: `”The only thing I believe in is the Virgin Mary. That's why I'm never going to get married.” There was a sentence succinct and insane enough to be spoken on a bridge.' Why does Pilenz get annoy at Malhke's sentence? Could be Mahlke's impertinence? But Pilenz go on being with him. However, when Mahlke asks Pilenz to hide him in his house, Pilenz denies. Pilenz tells him to hide on the barge; Pilenz does not want to imply himself so close in Mahlke's hiding. Pilenz claims that he should not have tried to help him, but he does, why? We see his mixture of feelings towards Mahlke till the end, his dependence on him. Finally Mahlke draws into the water with the cans of food, which Pilenz had got for him, but he forgets about the tin opener. Also contradiction in here, Mahlke is talking all the time, and Pilenz seriously remembering him to take the tin opener. However, when Mahlke jumps into the water, Pilenz have not had given him the tin opener. But Pilenz do not go straights to look for him to giving it to him, he let him go, and after a while, when starts to says shout: `can opener, can opener', when maybe Mahlke has already died. After that, Pilenz spend a lot of time looking for Mahlke in circus and when there was a meeting of veterans with the iron cross. Why Pilenz looked for Mahlke, why Pilenz did not give him the can opener?
Ambiguity is all throughout the novel Pilenz's lapsus, repetitions (about Mahlke's house or about how the cat achieved Mahlke's throat) and confusions makes the reader distrusts Pilenz's certainty of his story, Pilenz intention of writing it. Why Pilenz writes this story? Was it really as self therapy to forget his feeling of guilt? Was it to victimize, to apologize himself? Did he deliberately show Mahlke as someone awful in order to justify that he treated him as inferior, as a mouse?