Graveyard Utopia

The Call of the Toad

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 486 pp., $19.95

Günter Grass is the grand old man of German literature and its liberal conscience on matters like disarmament, abortion, the third world, and German reunification, which he vehemently opposed on the grounds that two small Germanys were more beautiful and less threatening than one large one. The fiction he published in the Eighties was not, on the whole, well received. This depressing fact was mentioned by many German reviewers of his latest novel, and must have been on his own mind when he wrote it. The Call of the Toad has a wan, valedictory ring. The title is a literal translation of the German Unkenrufe, but Germans use the word metaphorically as well, to mean prophecy of doom.

Like many of Grass’s other stories, The Call of the Toad is set in Gdansk, the ancient Hanseatic city that is now Polish, but was German Danzig when he was born there in 1927. The story opens in 1989 on All Souls’ Day, the day of the dead, when people carry flowers to the cemeteries. Like Grass, the hero, Alexander Reschke, is an exile from Gdansk living in West Germany. A widower in his sixties, he is a professor of art history at the university of Bochum. It is no accident that his special field is funereal: he is an expert on Baroque gravestones and memorials. The visit to his native city is partly for professional but mostly for sentimental reasons. Danzig was destroyed in the war and since rebuilt. The novel is full of guidebook passages on its churches, graveyards, parks, and mansions: they are colored by the professor’s nostalgia for the past and dismay at the present, and provide opportunities for reflections on destruction and the legitimacy (or not) of restoration.

The Polish widow Alexandra is a restorer and gilder by profession. A cheerful lady, she has come to terms with the fact that all restoration is a fraud. She is not quite sixty when Alexander meets her in the market. Grass goes on calling them “the widower and the widow”: death is never to be forgotten. They are both buying asters when they meet. Hers are to put on her parents’ grave. Her parents lived in Vilno, and were expelled when the city became Russian. (In 1989 it had not yet become Lithuanian.) Alexander accompanies Alexandra to the cemetery. They agree that it is sad for people to be buried in alien soil, a common fate in what Alexander calls “the century of expulsions.” He is inclined to brood out loud about Jews, Palestinians, Kurds, Sudeten Germans, and all the rest. There and then, Alexander and Alexandra decide to found a Polish-German-Lithuanian Cemetery Society (the Lithuanian part has, in the event, to be postponed). Its object will be to allow Germans expelled from Germany’s former eastern provinces and Poles resettled in what was once Germany to be buried where they were born. It will also cement German-Polish reconciliation. Alexander and Alexandra go back to her flat …

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