Unlike his previous book, Unpeeling the Onion (2006), which was a memoir, Günter Grass’s most recent book translated into English is one in which fiction and biography mix so freely that the reader is often at a loss as to where one begins and the other ends. There’s nothing strange about that, one of his children points out in The Box, since their father shows up in all his books, sometimes as the main character, sometimes in a minor role, in one costume or another, as if every book were about him. “A writer is a professional rememberer,” Grass has said.
Memory is his gold mine, his garbage dump, his archive. As unreliable and fragmentary as it usually is, memory is all we have to make sense of our past. The act of remembering, according to Grass, resembles the peeling of an onion or the piecing together of random images and episodes of a film—now in fast-forward, now in slow motion, jumping back, breaking off, then starting up again with a completely different script or plot. What that leaves out, of course, is the role the imagination plays in filling in the gaps. We make sense of our lives not just by ferreting out the facts, but by turning them into stories, so we can bring the past events to life. Every family’s history is a collection of scandalous and amusing stories, many of them of questionable veracity. I know mine are, but I’m ready to forgive every liar among my forebears, because they left me a few marvelous tales that continue to be worth telling again and again.
Of course, it’s not just our own lives that we remember, but also the times in which we lived. When it comes to history and collective memory, the difference between fibbing and telling the truth is serious business. Growing up in wartime Germany, as Grass did, there could be no avoiding recent history and its horrors. No stories, no matter how innocent, were safe from the shadow they cast. For Grass, the destruction and loss of his hometown Danzig (now Gdansk) and the expulsion of his family and their neighbors as the Soviet army took over Eastern Europe gave him a start as a writer and an epic mass of material that he has broadened and deepened over the years into what can only be described as an attempt to construct a historical and social portrait of twentieth-century Germany. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history who flies toward the future facing backward with his eyes fixed on the ruins piling up higher and higher in the past, Grass has too much curiosity and compassion to permit himself to look away.
Grass was born in 1927, just old enough to serve in the Nazi army in the last months of the war. His father was German and his mother came from a small Slavic minority called the Kashubians. The family’s circumstances were modest. He and his sister were raised in a two-room flat over a grocery store that his parents ran in the suburb of Langfuhr. In that cramped space he learned to love books and art. He describes, in the lecture he gave upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1999, how his mother, who liked practical jokes, once demonstrated to a neighbor her son’s complete absorption in the book he was reading by replacing the bread roll from which he was taking occasional bites with a bar of soap and watching him reach blindly for it, sink his teeth into it, and chew it for a while before being torn away from the page he was reading.
As he writes in Peeling the Onion, books have always been his gap in the fence, his entry into other worlds. From early on he also wanted to be an artist. He drew incessantly and collected cards with reproductions of old masters that came in cigarette packages. Despite these interests, he did poorly in school and never got a high school diploma, then or later. Instead, his memoir shows how easy it is for someone young to fall under the spell of a brutal authoritarian system led by a madman, and feel good about it. Although he describes being incensed by the pious clerics and torturers of the Inquisition, he admits leaving his book-learned sense of justice back in the Middle Ages and being blind to the wrongs that were becoming daily occurrences in Danzig and the rest of Germany under Hitler’s rule.
He not only kept outwardly silent like practically everyone else, but he also kept quiet inside himself, where there ought to have been some room left for doubt. His father was a party member and now he himself was also a firm believer. Not a fanatic, someone leading the pack, perhaps, but just one of the many who kept pace in the rank and file, convinced that their fatherland was surrounded by enemies and thus accepting every German deed as justifiable. In 1944, he tried to enlist in the navy as a U-boat crewman but was turned down, and in the fall of that year, when he was seventeen years old, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS.
Grass kept quiet about that episode in his life for more than sixty years. His official biography previously stated that, like many other young Germans in the last months of the war, he was inducted as a youth auxiliary into the regular army. What Grass left out was that after already being in the army, he was selected as an ardent believer to undergo basic training in the Waffen-SS as a tank gunner. The Jörg von Frundsberg division he joined was no longer an elite unit well known for its war crimes but a thrown-together motley crew made up of young boys like him and old-timers who had been transferred from different army units, because of a shortage of men due to immense casualties. They were trained on outdated equipment that had been used in the first years of the war and were sent out to fight when Germany had already lost the war and its troops were retreating in mass confusion from the eastern front. He says he never fired his gun. As he wrote in Peeling the Onion, the first dead bodies he saw were German:
Soldiers young and old, in Wehrmacht uniforms. Hanging from trees still bare along the road, from linden trees in the marketplaces. With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. A boy my age—his hair, like mine, parted on the left—dangling next to a middle-aged officer of indeterminate rank or, rather, stripped of his rank by a court-martial. A procession of corpses we ride past with our deafening tank-track rattle. No thoughts, only images.
Off to the side I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong. One has a cow hitched to his plow. Crows following the plow.
Then I see more refugees, filling the streets in long processions: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; I see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs hoping to survive the war. The image collector sees more than he can take in.
Grass survived a Russian attack that wiped out most of his unit and a subsequent night battle in a forest, and was wounded by a tank shell while trapped in a refugee column. He ended up in a field hospital in Marienbad after his division surrendered to US forces, and eventually he found himself in an American POW camp.
The revelation of his long-concealed secret about being in the SS astonished his admirers and outraged his critics, for Grass had spent a lifetime writing about the responsibility of intellectuals and never missed an opportunity to scold his fellow countrymen for their cowardice in failing to acknowledge their Nazi past. As Norman Birnbaum wrote in The Nation, “Grass treated himself with the indulgence he did not hesitate to describe as a moral defect in others.” He was called, with some justice, a phony. Whatever political and moral authority he had amassed denouncing Germans for their hypocrisy, he seemed to have squandered with his belated confession. It wasn’t his war record that was the cause for outrage, Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in a review of the book in these pages, but his spectacular failing to come clean about the full extent of his past.1
In Peeling the Onion this is what Grass has to say:
I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent…. What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.
True, during the tank gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light, but the ignorance I claim could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.
However one feels about his duplicity in the past, Peeling the Onion is still a very powerful book, valuable for its description of Germany at the end of the war and of the bleak years that followed. It also gives us a more detailed knowledge of Grass’s life and an insight into his novels, which rely so much on what he did and whom he met in those early years.
After being released from prison camp, Grass worked as a farm laborer, miner, and gravestone carver, studied sculpture in Düsseldorf and Berlin, and later made his living as a sculptor and graphic artist. He also wrote very fine poetry, published his first collection in 1956, and had his first play produced in 1957 before he came out with his first novel, The Tin Drum, in 1959, a wild and totally unconventional depiction of Germany in the first half of the century. It was translated into many languages and was a great international success, making Grass one of the most famous writers in Europe, if not in the world.
It recounts the story of Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf and an obsessive drummer from Danzig whose life and adventures in the years of rising Nazism and the war in Europe resemble those of the author. This huge, picaresque novel (which was recently beautifully translated into English by Breon Mitchell2), with its grotesque and realistic imagery, frequent digressions into stories within stories, outrageous comic scenes, and frank sexuality, was unlike any other depiction of Germany in postwar literature. In its wild invention and its irreverence, it owes much to Cervantes and Rabelais, and in its depiction of working-class poverty and squalor to Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz.
The Tin Drum is like a three-ring circus in a slaughterhouse or a carnival winding through a cemetery. Like his predecessors, Grass sets out to destroy the official view of reality, liberate the novel from social and literary conventions, and reestablish its lost link with the tradition of the folktale. As he wrote in an essay:
It should be clear…that my own work, at least, would be unthinkable without the style-shaping power of fairy tales. It permits insight into a broader reality, one that enlarges human existence. That is my understanding of fairy tales and myths: as part of, or rather, as the false floor of, our reality. The not merely childish, human wish to be able to fly, to remain small, to be invisible, even to be able to work good or evil at a distance through the power of will or by speaking a command aloud, and the desire to stop time, to travel backward or forward to any moment of what we take to be the past or future—these strange and extravagant desires are neither unreal nor outside our reality; rather, they determine our reality, in dreams and daydreams and even in our everyday, often unconsidered speech.
“Literature lives on myth. It creates and destroys myths,” he concludes. His short new novel, The Box, continues to explore that premise with a new cast of characters and in a new setting.
The plot of The Box is very simple. For his eightieth birthday, Grass tells his eight children (five boys and three girls by three different women) that he would like them to get together over a period of time and record on tape the memories of their life with their father, while he cooks for them and serves them sumptuous meals. They do that, and what we are given in the book are the edited transcripts of their conversations. As in all of his other novels, the tricks memory plays, the uncertainty of what really occurred, is one of the themes they return to again and again. Where his children have no difficulty coming to an agreement is about their father, who was usually too preoccupied with his work to play with them. You could never be sure whether he was really listening or just pretending, one of them says. All he really heard was what was ticking inside him, another one remembers. He wrote and wrote and couldn’t screw in a light bulb properly. Or he was simply gone, often not with their mother, but with some other woman.
Even worse, he didn’t tell them that they had an illegitimate half-sister, who had already turned twelve by the time he blurted out the truth. Since he made up far-fetched stuff all the time, some of it very amusing, they didn’t know whether to believe him at first. Nevertheless, not one of them admits that they had been excessively damaged or victimized by having a famous and remote father, although they all concur that it was no fun.
To make the story a bit more complicated, they are also remembering a family friend, the photographer Maria Rama (to whom the book is dedicated), who worked for Grass over many years, providing him with photographs of anything he felt he needed to stoke his imagination. She had a Leica and a Hasselblad, but for him she took snapshots almost exclusively with a cheap, old-fashioned box camera manufactured by Agfa that came on the market in 1930. It was a simple rectangular object with three eyes in front, a big one in the middle, two small ones above it, one on the right, and one on the left, which she held waist-high when working. She took snapshots of the children as they were growing up.
But this camera, which survived bombs, fires, and burst water pipes in Berlin during World War II, at times took snapshots that came out of her darkroom looking as if the prints had belonged to a different and older roll of film. An apartment in a building half-destroyed by bombs appeared neat and tidy with all its furnishings intact, although there were no people in it. As one of the children remembers it:
The grand piano stood in the middle of the room, undamaged. Sheet music was open on the rack, and the keys had all their ivories in place. There was a sofa in the room, which Marie had photographed a few days before when it was falling apart, so you could pull the stuffing out and see the springs. Now it had nice plump pillows on it, round and square. And sitting on that sofa, propped between two pillows, was a doll with black hair and big eyes who looked something like our little sister.
In another group of snapshots of the children, which their father ripped up after they were developed by Marie, they appeared as very young soldiers with enormous steel helmets on their heads and gas masks dangling from their necks. Sometimes, the box revealed secret wishes or could prophesy the future. The children appeared wearing towering wigs and hoopskirts, sometimes in sober dresses like queens from the Middle Ages, or they would be dressed like nuns in a cloister or like whores. One day the camera even knew in advance that a ship in the Baltic would capsize.
“A collector of images” is what Grass has called himself—and undoubtedly of good stories too, one may add. One of the lasting pleasures of his books comes not only from his mesmerizing storytelling but from his descriptions. There’s nothing, be it a rat, a fish skeleton, or an old kitchen chair, that he doesn’t approach with amazement and reverence. This “seasoned cynic experienced in mangled corpses swinging from trees,” as he calls himself in his memoir, has an immense, never-ending curiosity about absolutely everything. Marie’s camera is a metaphor for how his mind works. It takes snapshots of ordinary things and then mysteriously transforms them. It honors the full majesty of the physical reality on the other side of the lens while allowing for the transforming power of the imagination, which is never satisfied only with things seen, since it knows that there’s another, vaster world in our minds that the camera cannot record.
With all that, this little book is both fascinating to read and not entirely successful as a work of fiction. As an elegy for Marie, an old family friend whose reclusive and somewhat mysterious life is recounted here in his children’s words, it is very moving. The problem is that the dinners and conversations among the children—which in reality never took place—feel staged, with the father remaining silent, visibly directing the proceedings from the wings. It is also a bit difficult for the reader, even over the course of nine short chapters, to keep track of who is speaking, or to visualize every one of his children as a distinct person. They blur into one another.
In addition, what was at the start unquestionably an original and promising idea of the mind as a darkroom and a magic box becomes a straitjacket for the narrative through repetition. Grass belabors these metaphors until their rich meaning and poetry begin to feel contrived and overly explanatory. Still, even with these reservations, it is impossible not to be impressed by his inexhaustible desire to experiment with the form of the novel and by the many good stories and passages of exquisite writing in The Box.
March 24, 2011