July 22nd is International Ratcatchers’ Day. I didn’t even know there were international rats. Ah! The learning never ends when books are involved. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is the obvious choice, but we decry the obvious. Let’s find some more reclusive rodents.
1. The Wind in the Willows
There is, apparently, no shortage of people who will argue that Rat (aka “Ratty”) is not a rat. I say to them both P and shaw.
Kenneth Grahame‘s motley crew of vermin is so wonderfully British and polite and concerned for one another that our future robot overlords will be able to recreate the best of our civilization from reading this tale.
There is a weird story surrounding the publication of the novel which asserts that it had been rejected by a number of publishers until a certain Theodore Roosevelt made a plea on the author’s behalf. I can’t find a reputable source for this and it seems wildly improbable. Yes, there was Teddy’s thing with the national parks and the Great Outdoors in general, but there were also the Rough Riders. What happened to him on San Juan Hill?
2. King Rat
James Clavell was a POW in a Japanese camp for three years. Before his breakout hit Shogun, he debuted with this tale of survival in the camp. My father was a WWII vet of the Pacific theater and he told few tales, but one grew up with the distinct impression that few fates were worse than finding yourself at the mercy of the Japanese.
Clavell tells lots of tales. Most historical accounts paint his prison, Changi, as among the better run. The survival rate was significantly better than average; most camps had a 27% mortality rate. Some of this was due to the, let’s say pluck, of the prisoners, who caught and bred rats as livestock. Clavell tells the story of what happened when the camp was liberated and the soft-hearted detainees freed the rats from their cages, but I won’t spoil his revelation for you. I will spoil the bare facts of it though, because there is a lovely cinematic treatment of it featuring Javier Bardem teasing an oh-so-calm Daniel Craig in Skyfall. If you’d prefer to see to the stark movie version of King Rat, it’s up on YouTube in its entirety. But Daniel Craig is not in it, so…
3. A Matter of Rats
I have tried so many times to dig into India. The British loved it. They have all that tea. Gandhi and Mother Teresa are great. I could even learn to like the Nehru jacket. But I have failed to get into:
- Midnight’s Children
- The God of Small Things
- White Tiger
- The Inheritance of Loss
- The Interpreter of Maladies
I think each of the authors for these books is brilliant. The writing is enchanting. But India is just so different, in ways I can’t even articulate, that it’s hard to break into their reality bubble.
The same is true of Amitava Kumar‘s portrait of a hometown. It’s a skillfully crafted biography of place (I love that sort of thing). If you like any of the authors of the above works (and you must like at least one), you will probably love this. There is one tangent I found intriguing about the East India’s use of Patna to produce the opium they were using to hornswoggle the Chinese. [Marginalia: How is capitalism still legal?] Of all my efforts to conquer India, this vehicle came closest to carrying me to victory. Really, very close. Just not quite there. But this book does have rats—truly amazing numbers of rats. Don’t take this one camping with you.
You will have noted, I hope, the restraint I have applied in resisting the easy jump to mice. Mice are virtually everywhere in literature, and I don’t mean just in my overstock shelves in the basement. I’m sure there is some sort of mouse day (when is Mickey’s birthday, anyway) and we’ll do our due diligence then. Here’s hoping all your smelled rats are metaphorical.