True legacy of Günter Grass


In a riveting scene in his novel The Tin Drum, Günter Grass depicts the infamous Reichskristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 as it was witnessed in Danzig by the central character, Oskar Matzerath, a hunchbacked, teenage dwarf. This is no conventional, realist narrative. Writing retrospectively in a post-war lunatic asylum, Oskar recalls the horror from a strange, oblique angle. We hear of four filthy tomcats half-killed by an SA man with a poker, then stuffed in a sack and placed in a garbage can. Another brownshirt in a toyshop draws his dagger. ''He was cutting the dolls open and seemed disappointed each time that nothing but sawdust flowed from their limbs and bodies.'' A third Nazi, with puppets on his fingers, pokes at the Jewish toyshop owner, but he "was beyond being spoken to, beyond being hurt or humiliated". It is a brilliant literary device, more powerfully suggestive than any direct description of the horrors could possibly have been.

The forced dissolution of the Jewish community of Danzig in 1938-9 was a brutal, portentous prelude to the shoah. A "free city", formally ruled by the League of Nations, Danzig had fallen under the effective control of local Nazi thugs. Under menacing pressure, the main synagogue was torn down and most of the city's 10,000 Jews were driven out. The process of expropriation, expulsion, and extermination, is described anew in searing flashbacks in Grass's later book, half-novel, half reportage, From the Diary of a Snail.

Grass was born in Danzig in 1927 to a German father and a Kashubian (Slavic) mother. Much of his fictional writing is quasi-autobiographical and the vanished Danzig of his youth is central to his fiction. He writes without nostalgia, with a penetrating eye that peers round corners, through keyholes, up women's skirts, and into the interstices of the body and the mind. The publication of The Tin Drum in 1959 was a great liberating moment in German culture, releasing a cluster of pent-up taboos. Scabrous, irreverent, inventive, stinking (almost literally so), the book seized readers by their most sensitive organs and shook them mercilessly until they squealed with exquisite pain and anguished hilarity. Suddenly the Nazi past, repressed since the end of the war, was reabsorbed into the consciousness of the generation, not as guilt or repentance or shame but as intensely lived reality. A masterpiece of savage, sardonic artistry, The Tin Drum is the greatest German novel of the post-war period.

Unsparing in his portrayal of the descent to barbarism, deeply humane in his total lack of sentimentality, Grass thrust a bloody finger into the unhealed wounds of the German past. He was not so much the conscience of his nation as its restless, troubled subconscious.

"When I was 15," he wrote in 1972, "I wanted, in thoughts, words and works, to murder my father with my Hitler Youth dagger."

His writing could startle, dazzle and perturb

It should therefore have come as little surprise to an attentive reader, when he revealed in 2006, that at the age of 15 he had served in the Luftwaffe and later in the Waffen SS. In 2012 he earned further black marks by writing a ''poem'' (actually more a string of aphorisms) entitled What Must Be Said. It charged that Israel, a nuclear power, was endangering world peace by threatening war against Iran. The Israeli embassy in Berlin accused him of "blood libel" and the Israeli interior minister pronounced him persona non grata in the country. The mud stuck. Even the JC this week headlined its first website report of his death, "'Jew-baiter' and former SS member Günter Grass Dies".

But can the life of a great writer be subjected to such narrow reductionism? Similar questions arise in the case of two of the foremost English-language poets of the mid-20th century, Ezra Pound, an unrepentant celebrator of fascism, and TS Eliot, who was certainly some sort of antisemite.

In the case of Grass such questions are unavoidable because so much of his writing was political, concerned with the central moral-historical issues of the 20th century. He was a social democrat for much of his adult life and an intimate adviser to the Federal German Chancellor Willy Brandt. But his anarchic, combative, contradictory spirit led him to take up perversely idiosyncratic positions that were unpopular on the left. He spoke up for the 12 million Germans who (like himself) were compelled after the war to leave ancient centres of German settlement in eastern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin wall he opposed German reunification. At different times he was reviled by the left and the right. He was accused of being a Nestbeschmutzer (one that soils his own nest). The revelation of his Nazi youth struck many as puncturing a hole of hypocrisy in what they saw as his preaching and sermonising.

Whether the 17-year-old Grass of 1944 should be held as accountable for his wartime actions as the adult Pound is questionable. But should the possibly insane Pound be held as accountable as the undoubtedly sane, if brainwashed, teenage Grass? Was Grass more blameworthy than the young Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), almost exactly the same age as Grass, who, like him, was conscripted into the Luftwaffe towards the end of the war?

But a serious assessment of Grass cannot be confined to these questions alone. Do any of them diminish the stature of his work or his literary vision? As one who was simultaneously enthralled and disturbed when I first encountered his fiction 40 years ago, I can only say that to my mind these biographical controversies diminish not one whit the power of his writing to startle, dazzle, illuminate, and perturb – the functions of the great writer throughout the ages.

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