Günter Grass burst on the literary scene in 1959 with The Tin Drum, a novel which, with its mix of the fabulous—a hero who in protest against the world around him refuses to grow—and the realistic—a densely textured realization of pre-war Danzig—announced the advent of magic realism.
Made financially independent by the success of The Tin Drum, Grass threw himself into campaigning for Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats. After the Social Democrats came to power in 1969, however, and particularly after Brandt resigned in 1974, Grass grew estranged from mainstream politics, occupying himself more and more with feminist and ecological issues. Throughout this evolution he nevertheless remained a believer in reasoned debate and in deliberate if cautious social progress. His chosen totem was the snail.
Having been among the first to attack the consensus of silence about the complicity of ordinary Germans in Nazi rule—a silence whose causes and consequences have been explored by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their groundbreaking work of psychohistory The Inability to Mourn—Grass is freer than most to enter the debate in progress in Germany about silence and silencing, taking up, in a characteristically cautious and nuanced way, a position that until recently only the radical right has dared to champion in public: that ordinary Germans—not just those who perished in the camps or died opposing Hitler—have a claim to be numbered among the victims of World War II.
Questions about victimhood, about silence, and about the rewriting of history are at the heart of Grass’s latest novel, Crabwalk, which is narrated by a character named Paul Pokriefke (Pokriefke is Grass’s mother’s name; his father’s identity is unknown even to his mother).
Paul’s birthday is January 30, a date with symbolic resonance in German history. On January 30, 1933, the Nazis took power. And on the same day in 1945 Germany suffered its worst maritime disaster ever, a real-life disaster in the midst of which the fictional Paul was born. Paul is thus a kind of midnight’s child in Salman Rushdie’s sense, a child fingered by fate to give voice to his times.
Paul, however, would prefer to shirk his destiny. Sliding through life unnoticed suits his taste. A journalist by trade, he has always trimmed his sails to the political wind blowing strongest. In the 1960s he wrote for the conservative Springer press. When the Social Democrats came to power he became a rather halfhearted left liberal; later he took up ecological issues.
There are, however, two powerful people behind him, both nagging him to write the story of the night on which he was born: his mother and a shadowy figure so like Günter Grass that I will call him “Grass.”
From his mother Paul learns that he is connected in a roundabout way with an important Nazi, Landesgruppenleiter Wilhelm Gustloff. Gustloff—a real-life person—was in the 1930s stationed in Switzerland, with the task of recruiting expatriate …