And the Rat Laughed

Nava Semel; Miri­am Schlesinger, trans.
  • Review
By – December 20, 2011
A sym­pho­ny in five parts: each illu­mi­nates and rein­ter­prets the pre­ced­ing sec­tion. 

A five-year-old girl is giv­en by her par­ents to a farm fam­i­ly in the belief that she will be shield­ed from the Nazis. She is kept in an under­ground pit. Their grown son bru­tal­ly and relent­less­ly abus­es her. She befriends a rat, shar­ing her mea­ger scraps of food. (The Story) 

More than six­ty years lat­er, she speaks of her cap­tiv­i­ty, for the first time, to her grand­daugh­ter, who needs the text for a school project. But her tes­ti­mo­ny ram­bles and, just as she had mis­un­der­stood her par­ents’ aban­don­ment of her, the grand­daugh­ter jumps to the wrong con­clu­sion, cast­ing the farm­ers as right­eous gen­tiles’. The woman final­ly tells the girl a fable about a rat: Rat asked God to be able to laugh, like peo­ple. God relent­ed, telling the rat that when he heard laugh­ter, he would laugh. (The Legend) 

Ten years lat­er, poet­ry that may or may not have been writ­ten by the old woman is dis­cov­ered on the inter­net. These poems are the high­light of the book; the imagery is sim­ple, stark, and com­pelling. (The Poems) 

In the next sec­tion, nine­ty years into the future, the mate­r­i­al has mor­phed into major enter­tain­ment — theme parks and video games. This digres­sion seems not to belong, but it pro­vides dis­tance, per­spec­tive, a kind of wist­ful­ness, and ulti­mate­ly, redemp­tion. (The Dream) 

Final­ly, there are notes from the incred­i­bly com­pas­sion­ate priest who res­cues, nur­tures, and gen­tly guides the lit­tle girl back to human­i­ty. (The Diary) 

And the Rat Laughed is an amaz­ing short nov­el that takes one woman’s sto­ry, a Lit­tle Holo­caust,’ and uni­ver­sal­izes it. 
Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

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