Grass: The Gold & the Garbage

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Dominique Nabokov
Günter Grass, Berlin, 1979

Unlike his previous book, Unpeeling the Onion (2006), which was a memoir, Günter Grass’s most recent book translated into English is one in which fiction and biography mix so freely that the reader is often at a loss as to where one begins and the other ends. There’s nothing strange about that, one of his children points out in The Box, since their father shows up in all his books, sometimes as the main character, sometimes in a minor role, in one costume or another, as if every book were about him. “A writer is a professional rememberer,” Grass has said.

Memory is his gold mine, his garbage dump, his archive. As unreliable and fragmentary as it usually is, memory is all we have to make sense of our past. The act of remembering, according to Grass, resembles the peeling of an onion or the piecing together of random images and episodes of a film—now in fast-forward, now in slow motion, jumping back, breaking off, then starting up again with a completely different script or plot. What that leaves out, of course, is the role the imagination plays in filling in the gaps. We make sense of our lives not just by ferreting out the facts, but by turning them into stories, so we can bring the past events to life. Every family’s history is a collection of scandalous and amusing stories, many of them of questionable veracity. I know mine are, but I’m ready to forgive every liar among my forebears, because they left me a few marvelous tales that continue to be worth telling again and again.

Of course, it’s not just our own lives that we remember, but also the times in which we lived. When it comes to history and collective memory, the difference between fibbing and telling the truth is serious business. Growing up in wartime Germany, as Grass did, there could be no avoiding recent history and its horrors. No stories, no matter how innocent, were safe from the shadow they cast. For Grass, the destruction and loss of his hometown Danzig (now Gdansk) and the expulsion of his family and their neighbors as the Soviet army took over Eastern Europe gave him a start as a writer and an epic mass of material that he has broadened and deepened over the years into what can only be described as an attempt to construct a historical and social portrait of twentieth-century Germany. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history who flies toward the future facing backward with his eyes fixed on the ruins piling up higher and higher in the past, Grass has too much curiosity and compassion to permit himself to look away.

Grass was born in 1927, just old enough to serve in the Nazi army in the last months of the war. His father was German and his mother came from a small Slavic minority called the Kashubians. The …

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