book-reviews

The Mouse That Roared

by Leonard Wibberley

Rating: ★★★

The Mouse That Roared, also known as The Wrath of Grapes, is a joke that was fleshed out slightly too much. The initial premise is that a small, backwards European duchy decides to solve their economic woes by declaring war on the United States. Their aim is for there to be a relatively bloodless defeat, followed by extensive reparations from the victorious US. The alternative title comes from the causus belli they adopt for their war -- the imitation of their local wine by a cheap American knockoff. This being a comedy, all goes poorly, and the Grand Duchy of Fenwick actually carry out a successful incursion into New York and almost accidentally capture a recently-constructed super-bomb, essentially winning the war.

All this is fine, and the supporting farcical scenery which plays the medieval technology of the Grand Duchy against a superpower is for the most part amusing. Yet there is far too much made of the joke at points -- the history and internal organisation of the Grand Duchy is given considerable detail, as if the author started arguing for the plausibility of the setup and got carried away. Similarly, as the book draws to its close and Fenwick decides what it should do with its new superweapon-inspired political clout, the tone starts sounding more serious, and you get the worrying impression that the author is suggesting changes based on the outcome of an intentionally absurd plot.

The story takes on a serious 'Ban the Bomb' position as it progresses, which dates it a little, but provides the serious message to make the book satirical rather than simply comedy. For most modern readers, this message isn't likely to be that worthwhile -- disarmament is nowadays neither so hot a topic that it stirs powerful feelings, nor so neglected that the public needs reminding about the madness of nuclear war. The political solution presented in the book is not particularly revelatory either: even disregarding the absurdity of the setup, the solution relies on concentration of force in the hands of a single power, backed up by a network of allied informants, all of which would slot easily into the self-image of the superpowers. If the solution doesn't look that different from the problem, it's probably not a good solution.

Mildly amusing, if a little strained, The Mouse That Roared makes for the kind of light reading suitable for a plane trip or other low-focus event. Members of an older generation might find some nostalgia in both the style and substance of the novel. Nobody should go in expecting too much.