Last week, I attended the 22nd English Australia Conference, the annual meeting for the Australian ESL industry, in Melbourne (which meant that instead of a flight interstate and a stay at a nice hotel, I got to wake up earlier than usual and spend the best part of an hour each way on the train every day), and one of the presentations I attended spent some time outlining the virtues of free reading for language learners. One of the points the speaker stressed was that the students should read voluntarily, should choose something they want to read and should attempt a book which is pitched just above their level (no more than 4-5 unknown lexical items per page). It was an interesting little talk; however, seeing as the topic of the workshop was ‘Paraphrasing: The How To Guide’, most of the audience was, understandably, fairly annoyed with the presenter for completely ignoring the supposed topic.
The connection, of course, to today’s post is that I was thinking about this description of free reading as I was struggling through Nobel Prize Winner Günter Grass’ novella, ‘Katz und Maus’ (‘Cat and Mouse’). I haven’t really checked, but I think I could probably count on one hand the number of pages where there were fewer than five words whose meaning was completely unknown (although a lot of those were descriptions of plants, trees, types of ships or religious terminology – none of which I’m particularly up-to-speed on in my native language either). The difficulty with vocabulary was not helped by the vagueness I found in the storyline, but at least I wasn’t the only one who struggled to follow the plot. The entry for ‘Cat and Mouse’ in the English version of Wikipedia includes the following passage: “The narrative in the story is often fairly incoherent. For instance, the timeline of the narration is often treated flexibly, moving from the narrator’s perspective to different points within his memory of the events.” Good to see it’s not just me then…
Pilenz, the narrator, relates his memories of life during the war years in his home town of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk), but in reality, he focuses squarely on the character of Joachim Mahlke, later nicknamed ‘the Great Mahlke’. Mahlke, a non-descript boy were it not for the huge Adam’s Apple which draws everyone’s attention, becomes part of Pilenz’s group of friends one summer, coming to dominate the scene without really making an effort. The boys spend most of the summer swimming out to a sunken Polish minesweeper, where Mahlke continually dives into the depths of the ship, eventually discovering a room inside above the water level in which he makes himself a hideaway.
Throughout the story’s description of the group’s schooldays, the realities of war are never far from the surface. The boys mess around on their boat, watching out for Navy vessels in the distance, and their families get by on rations, hoping for news from family members at the front, hoping not to be visited by a man in uniform… Former students come back to school to tell of their experiences in the war, entrancing the crowd of students with stories of aerial fire-fights and sunsets over the Atlantic. One day, when a U-Boat captain returns to talk about his war, Mahlke, whose views on war seem to be less than positive, takes his first step on a path that will lead to tragedy.
‘Katz und Maus’ is a book which is difficult to pin down; what exactly is the author trying to say? This confusion isn’t helped by the deliberately obscure narration which swings between using the second and third person to describe events. Pilenz, while supposedly writing about Mahlke, switches frequently to addressing him directly, and the overall impression is a masterly one of a writer who is trying to get something out but is not quite sure that they actually want to (and is not really sure exactly what they want to say anyway). This memoir, with the focus squarely on his friend, also comes across as an excuse, an apology, an attempt to square up whatever happened in the past.
Belief is an important theme in this novel, both in the conventional sense and in the slightly sinister patriotic sense. Mahlke’s almost fanatical church attendance stands out amongst a more apathetic background, yet even this belief is shown to be something different to what it should be. His devotion to the Virgin Mary (and the collection of objects strung around his neck with his crucifix, helping to counterbalance the enormous protuberance nature has already placed there) turns into a type of idolatry, something he later admits to Pilenz. His approach to patriotism runs along similar lines; he only wants to go to war to earn an Iron Cross so that he too can come back to his former school and talk in front of a hall full of students. When this dream is prevented from becoming reality, he has nowhere to go, nothing left to achieve.
The story ends much as it began, out on the old sunken minesweeper, just Pilenz and Mahlke. As the rain lashes down on the Baltic Sea coast, the reader wonders what the future has in store for the two of them, knowing what the future has in store for their city (and country). Pilenz writes this down for us years later, yet he has just as little idea what to make of it all as we have. The story is his way of coming to terms with a past, and a friend, that he doesn’t really understand. As for me, I’m not really sure I fully get it either. Perhaps reading the other ‘Danzig Trilogy’ books will give me more of an idea of what Grass wants to say about the war years. At any rate, it will definitely give me the chance to improve my German…