The Tin Book



By Gnter Grass

Translated by Krishna Winston

(Harcourt, 234 pp., $25)

Click here to purchase the book.German society experiences intellectual crises with the collective
intensity that Americans generally reserve for tabloid dramas. Once
or twice a decade, an event ignites a debate of extraordinary
proportions that seems to permeate all classes and interest groups,
from the country's news media to its bars and its living rooms. The
1980s saw Ronald Reagan's visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg
and the subsequent Historikerstreit, a public debate over the
uniqueness of the Holocaust as a historical event. When Daniel
Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners appeared in
German translation in the mid-1990s, a pandemonium of newspaper
columns and television talk shows ensued. Such a crisis, whenever
it occurs, assumes a level of dominance over the national
conversation that is difficult for Americans--or perhaps any non-
Germans--to comprehend.

The country's latest crisis has provoked comparisons to the
Goldhagen- Debatte for its fury, but already it has lasted even
longer. In 1997, W.G. Sebald gave a now-famous series of lectures
at the University of Zurich in which he argued that German writers
had almost universally neglected to document the horrors of the
Allied bombing campaign against Germany. The air war, Sebald said,
resulted in a national crisis of extreme proportions, yet it was
all but invisible in the national literature. He concluded that
this absence was the result of an unspoken agreement among German
writers to respect the taboo that had arisen in postwar Germany
against speaking of the bombing-- essentially, a cultural
conspiracy, the effects of which have lasted until the present.

The magnitude of the furor evoked by Sebald's lectures is testified
to not only by the extensive attention that they received in the
German media, but also by a chapter that Sebald added when he
published them as the book Luftkrieg und Literatur, or Air War and
Literature, two years later, in which he discussed some of the
letters he received in response and sought to provide more context
for some of his remarks. But Sebald's critics continued to chafe at
his primary thesis: first, that such a taboo against acknowledging
the devastation of the air war existed, and second, that the
writers who supposedly upheld it had somehow failed their nation.
Many readers were also dismayed by the strain of moral relativism
inherent in Sebald's argument, which provided almost no political
context for the bombing of Germany and at times described the
devastation in language disturbingly and apparently
unself-consciously reminiscent of the Holocaust. As the debate
escalated, other books were thrown in as well: Bernhard Schlink's
The Reader, a novel-in-progress by Peter Schneider. "There have
long been signs of such a transformation from a society of
perpetrators into a society of victims, but now the thematization of
German suffering ... threatens to relativize the suffering of
Holocaust victims and survivors," one critic wrote in Der Spiegel.
"In German literature of late, has there been--clandestinely or
openly--a diminishment of German guilt at work?"

With the publication of Sebald's novel Austerlitz and his sudden
death shortly thereafter, the controversy died down somewhat; but
by the time an English translation of his book about the air war
appeared earlier this year (under the more abstract title On the
Natural History of Destruction), it had been rekindled, primarily
owing to the appearance, and the huge commercial success, of Jrg
Friedrich's Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945, or The
Fire: Germany During the Bombardment 1940-1945, which picks up
where Sebald's lectures left off. Sebald had called for a "natural
history of the destruction," one that would comprehensively
document the sheer numbers of the dead, the floods of refugees, the
fires that caused the water in Hamburg's canals to boil, the sudden
flourishing of rats and flies and other parasites that feed off
corpses. As if in response, Friedrich devotes nearly six hundred
pages to detailing every aspect of the air war: the weapons used
against Germany and in its defense, the strategy of "moral
bombing," the propaganda perpetrated by both sides. The moral right
of the Germans to declare their own victimhood had been thoroughly
re-asserted, but the debate over its legitimacy was still nowhere
near resolved.

Sebald singled out many German writers for criticism, but one name
was conspicuously absent from his discussion. For half a century,
Gnter Grass has been the great literary distiller of German history
and culture. At their most extraordinary, his creations are neither
political novels nor social novels, but a hybrid, multidimensional
form that encompasses both purposes as it sweeps past them. More
than any other artistic work of the postwar period, Grass's "Danzig
trilogy," especially its massive cornerstones The Tin Drum and Dog
Years, assumed the responsibility of interpreting the experience of
the war for a generation of Germans still devastated by its blows.
Cat and Mouse, the strange novella sandwiched between these
monuments, revealed another Grass, one who could pack all the
emotional and intellectual wallop of the larger works into the
slender confines of a fable.

Stylistically, Grass is an expressionist: he paints with broad
strokes. It would be oversimplifying to call his stories
allegorical; he works in a rich and profoundly strange surrealism
that verges on supernaturalism. Along with Wolfgang Koeppen, Grass
belongs to what could be called (after Koeppen's novel of 1953) the
"hothouse" school of postwar German writing, characterized by its
wildly exuberant shoots of language and imagery. Oskar, the
protagonist of The Tin Drum, makes up his mind at the age of three
that he will stop growing--and he remains only three feet tall
until a later crisis provokes him to grow again, a perfect emblem
for a nation stunted by Hitler. Other fantastic elements include
the slow suicide of Oskar's mother by "fish poisoning" and a fizzy
candy with possibly mystical properties that aids Oskar in the
seduction of his babysitter. One of the most dramatic scenes
depicts the death of Oskar's stepfather, who chokes while trying to
swallow his Nazi Party pin after the Russians have invaded Danzig
and are occupying his house. These walking, breathing, screaming
metaphors were the perfect vocabulary for the convulsed,
schizophrenic Germany of the 1950s and early 1960s--and the ideal
antidote to the Nazis' enforced sterilization of the language.

Grass has followed his nation through crisis after crisis, from the
Vergangenheitsbewltigung (coming-to-terms-with-the-past) movement of
the 1960s right up to the 1990s and re-unification, which he
famously opposed. But lately, as the postwar turbulence of German
politics has started to even out, Grass's work has taken on a
certain programmatic quality. Consider The Call of the Toad,
published in 1992, a black comedy depicting the efforts of a German
man and a Polish woman to start a joint venture after the fall of
the Berlin Wall: their plan is to sell cemetery plots in Gdansk
(formerly Danzig) to Germans exiled from the area after World War
II, capitalizing on the former refugees' sentimental dreams of
homeland. The farce, though amusing and often politically sharp, is
an unambitious replacement for the lush surrealism and the
psychological penetration of Grass's early work.

Yet even if his later writing has been lackluster, Grass--the author
of more than two dozen novels, books of poetry, and essay
collections published steadily over the last fifty years--remains
the elder statesman of German letters. So it is not surprising that
he seems to have taken Sebald's complaints about postwar German
literature personally. In a public discussion with the poets
Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Tomas Venclova in Vilnius
in 2000, he commented that he found it distressing that "the memory
of the pain inflicted upon the Germans during the war" was still
expressed only "belatedly and hesitantly." In postwar literature,
he said, "the memory of the many dead from the nights of bombing
and the mass flight" had found little room for expression. And now
Grass seems to have sought to rectify this past omission with a
novel that was published in Germany last year, shortly before Der
Brand, and now appears in English translation.

Crabwalk takes as its starting point the sinking of the Wilhelm
Gustloff, a German cruise ship turned refugee carrier that was
attacked on January 30, 1945 by a Soviet submarine: more than nine
thousand people drowned, including four thousand children,
qualifying the episode as the worst maritime disaster in history.
Everything about this ambiguous book, from its choice of subject
matter to the explicit self-interrogation of its characters, reveals
its deliberate calibration to the current political temperature. It
is not so much a settling of the current controversy as a symptom
of it; and for this reason it is sadly representative of the recent
turn in Grass's work. His novels have always been closely tied to
actual events, but lately he seems not to be charting the political
current so much as swimming along with the tide. This would be an
unfortunate circumstance for any writer, but it is particularly so
with regard to Grass, who is, more than any other contemporary
writer, uniquely positioned to expose the falsity of the new debate
over German victimhood.

The book opens with an apologia. "Why only now?" asks the figure of
the writer who lurks in the background of this book, a figure
clearly meant to represent Grass. And the narrator--who, in a
different way, also stands in for the author--attempts to stammer
an answer: "Well, because Mother's incessant nagging ... Because I
wanted to cry the way I did at the time, when the cry spread across
the water, but couldn't anymore ... Because for the true story ...
hardly more than three lines ... Because only now ..." This is the
voice of Paul Pokriefke, a mediocre journalist in his fifties,
separated from his wife and estranged from his adolescent son.
There is nothing remarkable about him other than the circumstances
of his birth: his mother, Tulla, a teenager at the time and nine
months pregnant, was a passenger on the Gustloff, and thanks to her
condition, she was among the few who were rescued. She delivered her
son aboard a lifeboat as the ship sank into the Baltic Sea.

Tulla wishes that she could tell the story of her experiences during
the war herself. "I could write a novel," she says at one point.
"The worst was the bombers, when they came in real low over us and
pow-pow-pow...." But Paul is the writer, and so she nags at him to
do it. "That sea there full of ice, and them poor little ones all
floating head down," she repeatedly reminds him in her homely
dialect. "You've got to write about it. That much you owe us,
seeing as how you were one of the lucky ones and survived." Paul,
though, has always avoided discussing anything related to the
Gustloff, to the point that he is even reluctant to celebrate his
birthday for fear that someone might comment on the date's
significance. (The ill-starred January 30 was also the birthday of
the ship's eponym, a middle-level Nazi functionary, and, less
obscurely, the date in 1933 on which the Nazis seized power.) He
was not alone in his reluctance to mention the tragedy: in postwar
Germany, he says, there was an unspoken taboo against any talk of
German suffering during the war. As Tulla puts it, for years "you
couldn't bring up the [Gustloff]. Over here in the East we sure as
hell couldn't. And when you in the West talked about the past, it
was always about other bad stuff, like Auschwitz and such. Lordy,
lordy!" (It is a curious feature of this book that all its
characters appear to have followed the recent debate in the
newspapers very closely, though no one actually mentions it.)

But now--the time period of the novel is not specified, but it could
not take place at any moment other than the present--Paul has
become a devotee of the Internet: "our global playground, the
vaunted ultimate venue for communication." In the course of his
"bouncing around in the Net," he becomes obsessed with a website
devoted to the ship and its history. The site, designed in Gothic
script, purports to be sponsored by a neo-Nazi group calling itself
the "Comrades of Schwerin" (Gustloff's hometown, and where Paul was
brought up), and it is devoted to retelling not only the story of
Gustloff's "martyrdom"-- his assassination by a Jew, David
Frankfurter, in 1936--but also the martyrdom of those aboard the
ship bearing his name.

"I had a growing suspicion that what lurked behind the URL ... was
no skinhead group calling itself the Comrades of Schwerin but a
solitary clever young fanatic," Paul says. "Someone scuttling
crabwise like me, sniffing for the scents and similar exudations of
history." As he follows the elaborate chat- room dialogue between
"Wilhelm," the site's proprietor, and his interlocutor "David," a
Jew who debates with him about German revisionism, it becomes clear
to him that "Wilhelm" is actually his own son, Konny. "History, or,
to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked
up, is a clogged toilet, " Paul comments. "We flush and flush, but
the shit keeps rising." Meanwhile, he has been contacted by an
older writer, a former instructor of his, who presses him into
service as a sort of ghostwriter to tell the tale of the sinking of
the Gustloff.

The "writer" guiding Paul's hand is, of course, Grass. "Soon after
the publication of that mighty tome Dog Years, this material had
been dumped at his feet," Paul reports. "He--who else?--should have
been the one to dig through it. ... Unfortunately, he said, he
hadn't been able to pull it off.... Now it was too late for him. He
hadn't invented me as a surrogate, rather he had discovered me,
after a long search, on the list of survivors, like a piece of lost
property." This is a sly inside joke: Tulla Pokriefke appeared as a
minor character in two novels of the Danzig trilogy, Cat and Mouse
and Dog Years, but with this particular detail of her background
absent, almost as if the "taboo" had then prevented Grass from
mentioning it.

The doubling of the narrator conveniently allows Grass to argue both
sides of the issue. Crabwalk is not exactly a novel about the
sinking of the Gustloff; it is, rather, a novel about the
possibility of writing a novel about the sinking of the Gustloff.
As its title suggests, the book proceeds with a jerky, non-linear
motion that manifests Paul's own ambivalence about his role in the
re-telling of this history. "Should I do as I was taught and unpack
one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a
crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways,
and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly?" he asks himself
toward the beginning. His rejection of "order," of the way he was
taught to do things, is typical of his cohort's response to their
parents' generation. Paul and his contemporaries, coming of age in
the 1960s, were the first to open a full-fledged investigation into
the crimes of the Nazi era, crimes literally (in many cases)
committed by their fathers. Like many of Grass's other
protagonists, Paul has a multiplicity of candidates for his
fatherhood, which is to say that he really has no father at all.
This is a common trait in fiction about the '68ers, as they are
known, which often depicts them wrestling with and finally
rejecting their guilty fathers, resulting in an allegedly
fatherless generation that serves as an ironic remedy to the Nazis'
Vaterland propaganda.

But if Paul is ambivalent about the use of remembering the German
suffering during the war, the Grass figure comes down firmly on the
other side of the question. "This business has been gnawing at the
old boy," Paul says about the older writer at one point.

Actually, he says, his generation should have been the one. It
should have found words for the hardships endured by the Germans
fleeing East Prussia: the westward treks in the depths of winter,
people dying in blinding snowstorms, expiring by the side of the
road or in holes in the ice when the frozen bay known as the
Frisches Haff began to break up under the weight of horse-drawn
carts after being hit by bombs, and still, from the direction of
Heiligenbeil, more and more people streaming across the endless
snowy waste, terrified of Russian reprisal.... Never, he said,
should his generation have kept silent about such misery, merely
because its own sense of guilt was so overwhelming, merely because
for years the need to accept responsibility and show remorse took
precedence, with the result that they abandoned the topic to the
right wing. This failure, he says, was staggering.

It would be nave, of course, to take the "Grass" character in the
novel-- this "old man ... who has worn himself out with
writing"--as identical to Grass himself. Still, the book, with its
continual and very self-conscious crossing of the lines between
history and fiction, mischievously encourages such a blurring. We
are presented with a fictional character drawn from Grass's own
previous work, muddling through the writing of a book about an
actual historical event, alternately egged on and chastised by both
a character who bears a strong resemblance to Grass and another
character straight out of Grass's fiction. The old man "thinks he
has found in me someone who has no choice but to stand in for him,"
Paul remarks. "But it's not him forcing me to do this, it's Mother.
And it's only because of her that the old man is poking his nose
in; she's forcing him to force me...." (Even the URL for the
"Comrades of Schwerin" website, mentioned repeatedly, is real, in a
way: it turns out to be the site for Grass's book.) And the fact
that Grass puts the Luftkrieg argument in his own mouth, as it
were, is a powerful suggestion that he does in fact subscribe to it
himself. Not to mention that the very existence of Crabwalk would
seem to justify this interpretation: if Grass did not believe that
the time was right for such a novel ("Why only now?"), why would he
have written it?

"His generation should have been the one" to tell the story, the
"old man" laments. But actually Grass's generation was the one to
tell the story. Here is one writer on the refugees:

The streets were clogged with refugees from East Prussia and the
Delta. It was just about impossible to get through the underpass by
the Sports Palace.... What traffic! Tanks retreating from the
heights and the Delta, some being towed. From the trees--lindens if
I remember rightly--dangled soldiers and Volksturm men. To their
jackets were affixed cardboard signs identifying them quite legibly
as traitors.... There were also whole clusters of youngsters strung
up in uniforms that were too big for them, and several times I
thought I recognized Strtebeker--but youngsters at the end of a
rope all look alike.

And here is the same writer, in a remarkable passage, on the fires
caused by the bombing:

Inner City and Outer City, Old City, New City and Old New City,
Lower City and Spice City--what had taken seven hundred years to
build burned down in three days.... It was Russians, Poles,
Germans, and Englishmen all at once who were burning the city's
Gothic bricks for the hundredth time. Hook Street, Long Street, and
Broad Street, Big Weaver Street and Little Weaver Street were in
flames; Tobias Street, Hound Street, Old City Ditch, Outer City
Ditch, the ramparts and Long Bridge, all were in flames. Built of
wood, Crane Gate made a particularly fine blaze. In Breeches-maker
Street, the fire had itself measured for several pairs of
extra-loud breeches. The Church of St. Mary was burning inside and
out, festive light effects could be seen through its ogival
windows. What bells had not been evacuated from St. Catherine, St.
John, St. Brigit, Saints Barbara, Elisabeth, Peter, and Paul, from
Trinity and Corpus Christi, melted in their belfries and dripped
away without pomp or ceremony. In the Big Mill red wheat was
milled. Butcher Street smelled of burnt Sunday roast. The Municipal
Theater was giving a premiere, a one-act play entitled The
Firebug's Dream.... Holy Ghost Street was burning in the name of
the Holy Ghost. Joyously, the Franciscan Monastery blazed in the
name of St. Francis, who had loved fire and sung hymns to it. Our
Lady Street burned for Father and Son at once. Needless to say that
Lumber Market, Coal Market, and Haymarket burned to the ground. In
Baker Street the ovens burned and the bread and rolls with them. In
Milk Pitcher Street the milk boiled over. Only the West Prussian
Fire Insurance Building, for purely symbolic reasons, refused to
burn down.

Both these passages come from The Tin Drum. True, the above fantasia
on the tragedies of war, equal parts wordplay and eyewitness
account, is not what Sebald meant by a "natural history"; but its
effect is undeniably far more potent than Jrg Friedrich's
meticulous listings of weapons and generals. And it paradoxically
shows that Sebald was in many ways right. If the suffering of
German civilians is to be remembered and recognized, art is the most
powerful means of doing so. The greatest political novels explore
at length the intellectual and social and emotional complexities
that surround an urgent issue, without descending into polemical
simplicities. But there is the rub: the call for work that
emphasizes German victimhood requires precisely the removal of
context and complexity that turns novels into polemics.

Considering that Grass has already written so profoundly about the
effects of the war, why did he pay any heed to this simplifying and
demagogic call to decontextualize German suffering? It is obvious
from his earlier work that he once knew how distorting such a
reevaluation is: the Danzig trilogy owes its great power not least
to his determination to provide a full, even epic picture of the
war years. And coming from Grass, Crabwalk's pandering to the
politics and the intellectual fashions of the season is worse than
disappointing. For not only does it result in a novel stocked with
wooden characters and ludicrous dialogue, it also is evidence of
Grass's failure to take the lead in exposing the wrongheadedness of
the current debate. He, of all people, should have pointed out that
the question of whether German suffering should be given priority
in the understanding of World War II is fundamentally misguided.
For it is a question he had already answered.

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