Too Far Afield was published in Germany five years ago, and stirred up a huge literary rumpus. Reviewers for and against the novel tore into it and each other with a savagery rarely experienced in English-language criticism, and enough indignant articles and letters were produced to fill at least two sizable collections in book form. They were published, one in Göttingen by Grass’s publisher, Steidl Verlag, the other by the Zeitungsarchiv (Newspaper Archive) in Innsbruck. The man who fired the first shot was the famous and famously fierce literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, writing in the not particularly literary magazine Der Spiegel. His photograph made it onto the cover: he looks beside himself with rage and is shown literally tearing the book in half. He claimed—he hardly needed to—that the photo was a montage. Still, the extra protest added to the decibels, and the photo caption became the title for the continuing debate in the press: Zerreissprobe—a neat pun. Zerreissprobe is a term for “uncorrected proof”; but the literal meaning is “proof to be torn up.”
Any book by Grass is an event, even though there is a body of opinion that maintains his best work is long past. Still he remains the most prominent of the older German writers, and his first, ebullient, unpredictable, savage, crude, prodigal, riotous, opulent, poetic novel The Tin Drum (filmed in 1979 by Volker Schlöndorff) is without doubt a milestone. It is very long, and Too Far Afield is longer still, 781 pages in German, 658 in Krishna Winston’s heroic but brio-free translation.
Grass has always been a politically committed writer (as well as a tireless participator in politico-literary gatherings). He leans to the left, and his latest commitment—reaching back well before the great historic event whose tenth anniversary has just been celebrated (though not by Grass)—has been opposition to the reunification of Germany. This is what has infuriated most of his critics. They pounced on the fact that, although born (in 1927) and brought up in Gdansk—now part of Poland, but then still the autonomous German-speaking city of Danzig—he has chosen to live either in West Germany or, at various times, in France and India. His stays abroad have usually had an element of grumpy protest against whatever was going on in the DDR, or later on in the Federal Republic.
Too Far Afield is a tract disguised as a novel. There are two messages, one general, one specific: the first is that doubt is good; and the second is that German unification is and always has been bad (i.e., under Bismarck). The book also has two heroes—heroes in the sense of principal characters, not of heroic figures: Grass cuts them both down to size. One is his invention, Theo Wuttke (known as Fonty for reasons to be explained later), a retired former lecturer employed by the East German Ministry of Culture, then demoted to delivering files in the same organization, and finally …