And the Rat Laughed, by Nava Semel (Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, $25.00), opens with the painful, halting voice of an elderly woman in Tel Aviv in 1999. Her granddaughter has asked her to tell her story, but she cannot find the words for her Holocaust experience of horror and abuse endured in an underground potato pit, with only a rat for company. Elements of the grandmother’s story are selectively shared with the reader as she weighs the costs of revealing the truth of her suffering. Only in the next section of the novel, in which the granddaughter recounts to her teacher what she gleaned from the story, can the reader discern what the grandmother chose to tell. The grandmother has shared what she could bear to, much of it in the form of a legend, a rat-centric creation myth.
There is pathos in the granddaughter’s attempt to imagine her grandmother’s suffering as somewhat less awful. She cannot face the fact that her grandmother was left in a pit, so she desperately tries to soften the truth. “I mean, it must have been something special that the farmer and his wife prepared in advance. Maybe they even planned it together with her parents to make it look just like her room at home…” To the reader, who imagines the pain the grandmother suffered, the granddaughter’s naivete and unreliable narration highlight the tragedy of the story.
The novel’s central conceit is that the legend about the girl and the rat inspires a website of poems that in the second decade of the 21st century sparks a global phenomenon. It takes some work for the reader to believe that these poems, which comprise the third part of the novel, could have led to a movement that nearly deifies the rat. And the fourth section is also a challenge to embrace, a communique from 2099 from an anthropologist who is so moved by the story that he decides to leave the confines of his virtual society on a quest for the roots of the myth. Despite detailed exposition, the futuristic world never becomes real. The last section, an authentic voice, is the diary of the person who saved the grandmother from the people who “saved” her in the pit.
The novel is less about what actually happened to a small girl during the Holocaust than about how the memory of those events is transmitted and preserved. The grandmother’s grudgingly told story, the granddaughter’s imaginative and unreliable transmission of it, the poems, the anthropologist and the rediscovered diary are testament to the tenacity of the story, to its desire to be fully told even when concealed and misunderstood. It’s an unsettling idea, suggesting both that the accounts we hear are mangled, as in a game of telephone, and that clarity will emerge despite those who, for malevolent or benevolent purposes, conceal the truth.
Rahel Lerner is a teacher and freelance editor and writer in Baltimore, MD.