Beim Häuten der Zwiebel
Ein Buch, Ein Bekenntnis: Die Debatte um Günter Grass’ “Beim Häuten der Zwiebel”
Granted: he was a member of the Waffen-SS. But suppose that revelation had not overshadowed last year’s publication of Günter Grass’s memoir, like a mushroom cloud. What should we have made of Peeling the Onion? We should, I believe, have said that this is a wonderful book, a return to classic Grass territory and style, after long years of disappointing, wooden, and sometimes insufferably hectoring works from his tireless pen, and a perfect pendant to his great “Danzig trilogy” of novels, starting with The Tin Drum. That is what we should still say, first and last.
An account of his life from the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, when as an eleven-year-old war-enthusiast he collected fragments of shrapnel from the first fighting in his native Danzig, to the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959, Peeling the Onion repeatedly surprises, delights, and moves with passages of great descriptive power. He enables us not merely to see but to hear, touch, and smell life in the tiny, two-room apartment in Danzig where he grew up, with a shared lavatory on the staircase—“a stink-cell, the walls of which fingers had smeared.” From this suffocating narrowness the teenager longed to escape into what he saw as the romantic, heroic world of service in the Führer’s armed forces. So at the age of fifteen he volunteered to fight on a U-boat, but his offer was not accepted.
No writer is better at evoking smell—that literary Cinderella among the senses. Few novelists have written more lovingly about food, celebrating hearty German sausage and coldwater fish. Everything of the earth earthy, of the flesh fleshly, belongs naturally to Grassland. His characteristic, deeply realistic mixing of the public and private is both touching and funny. For the adolescent him, he recalls, the flow and, increasingly, ebb of the German armies on the eastern front, though worrying, was of far less pressing concern than the unpredictable ebb and flow of his own penis. This he detailed, at length, to his father-confessor.
When he is drafted into the armed forces at the age of sixteen, in the fall of 1944, and finds himself in a unit of the Waffen-SS, his reaction to the hardships of training is to stop in a quiet corner of the woods through which he has been ordered to carry a daily pot of coffee to his company’s Unterscharführer and Hauptscharführer—and to piss into their coffee. He does this repeatedly, “my regular morning act of revenge,” and speculates that it helped him to keep going, to survive even the most sadistic treatment “with an inner grin,” unlike the poor fellow in a neighboring company who hangs himself on the strap of his gas mask.
The account of his tank unit’s desperate action in April 1945, almost surrounded by advancing Russian troops, is one of the most vivid descriptions of the experience of war that I have read: Tolstoy crossed with Vonnegut. He …