I don’t normally have an urge to write about a book I’ve read. I’m not sure why that is — something to do with internalising the ideas, the atmosphere. Perhaps I’m a bit protective of the world a fiction book has created in my head (although my brother reminded me the other day that I used to constantly steal books he’d started, so I’m obviously not as concerned about other people maintaining those worlds in their own heads — sorry Tom!). I’m perfectly willing to talk endlessly about non-fiction, but I find it more difficult to articulate my feelings about fiction.
And so I was surprised when my reaction to Nava Semel’s ‘And the Rat Laughed’ was to write about it. It’s an unusual book. Essentially, it’s about remembering the Holocaust — how a story should be told, if it should be told, how to tell a story of trauma to a young family member without traumatising them too, how to avoid diluting the story so much that the essence of the experience is lost, how to then continue passing the story on without it turning into a warped game of Chinese whispers. Memory fascinates me, which is possibly why I loved this book so much, despite whole sections that simultaneously irritated me with their format or style.
The book is in five sections.
The first is the old woman’s story, told in bits and pieces, at times difficult to decipher among her wondering about the damage she might do to her granddaughter, to whom she is telling the story, her guilt about telling her granddaughter when she has never told her own daughter, and through the cloud of her own memory loss.
In the second section, the granddaughter apologetically tells her teacher that she failed to get a story from her grandmother, and could only elicit from her a seemingly meaningless legend about a rat that desperately wanted to laugh and a little girl in a pit who could not help him.
The third section is a series of poems. Short, simple. Devastating to the reader having already read sections one and two. They sound like poems written by children, and in a later section we discover that this is exactly what they are.
In part four I found myself skipping sections and forcing myself to go back and re-read them. It is set in 2099, in a time where people can communicate with one another through their dreams and send ‘b-mails’ (brain-mails, like emails). All the futuristic stuff was a bit far-fetched for me, but this section did serve to explore what can happen to a personal narrative once it’s removed from the person who had the experiences, and becomes a sort of myth.
The fifth and last section comes back to the original story, and shows us the diary of the priest who eventually saved the little girl (who became the grandmother) from the pit and tried to rehabilitate her.
At times I couldn’t help but feel that the Girl and Rat myth became a bit gimmicky, and took away from the devastating story of darkness and abuse, but then perhaps that’s the point. What does happen to our stories when they are told and retold in less and less accurate ways? Do the important parts disappear? Do they become myth? And if they become myth are they necessarily less emotionally potent?
And this, perhaps, is why I felt compelled to write about this book: it left me with questions.