An old man and the rat he received as a Christmas present become engaged in a dialogue on the future of humanity. The rat draws up visions in which mankind is wiped out in a nuclear war while the rats survive and build a new civilization. The man weaves stories, too, fairy tale characters who try to save the forest, five women who cross the Baltic Sea on a boat on which no men are allowed, the tale of a painter who is a forger, and himself orbiting Earth in a space ship as the sole survivor.
These multiple plot lines are one of the problems of the book because some are more interesting than others, and they are not connected enough to make the less engaging ones better by association. The book is overall rather disjointed, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of what is going on. There is also an issue of substance. There is no real message or meaning to the story, as it is as thin as paper on one hand and incredibly convoluted on the other, so what can be taken away from reading this book? A version of the apocalypse that is as surreal and strange as anyone can imagine, but if that is all, it is lacking.
Although there are some parts that I enjoyed or that I found to be immaculately crafted, this book overall was just not for me. While reading it, I was sometimes revolted or amused, and often surprised, but very rarely was the story in any way compelling to me. The picture it paints is bleak, although there is at least some black humour involved, and it is too heavily and obviously influenced by the time it was written in, which is one of the things that holds it back. In the early 1980s the threat of a nuclear war was still present and people feared that the forests would soon be gone because of acid rain, and Grass takes this persistent sense of doom and molds it into a book. But even though parallels can be drawn to the current situation in which the issues have changed, but are nonetheless as threatening as then, his approach only feels dated, and the dystopian future he creates just doesn’t resonate anymore.