Imprisoned in Günter Grass’s new and corpulent book a thinner but very considerable novel is struggling to get out. The question, which I find difficult to answer with much confidence, is: does it manage to emerge? There is no end of excess fat for it to cut a way through: at the same time it is a muscular piece of flesh and blood, endowed with sharp teeth, at least thirty-two of them.
Dog Years, stretching from the early Twenties up to 1957, falls into three sections. The first, narrated by Herr Brauxel, owner of a very special sort of mine, deals with the childhood of the two main figures, Amsel and Matern, who became blood-brothers with the help of a penknife, though Amsel turns out (when such things start to matter) to be half-Jewish. At this time however, Matern, the though, the sportsman, protects Amsel, the plump clever boy (artistic too, he creates prodigious scarecrows) from the other lads. This section could even be said to possess a good deal of simple charm.
The second book, a hefty slab of 230 pages, takes the form of letters addressed by Liebenau, a slightly younger man, to his cousin Tulla, the Tulla Pokriefke of Grass’s previous novel, Cat and Mouse, and carries the narrative up to 1945. Liebenau is a rather drab, rather feeble person, Tulla is a fearsome wench, quite a creation in her own right, but having little to do with the essential story of Amsel and Matern. This second section is terribly hard going. Grass appears to have been influenced by the question-and-answer sequence of Ulysses; the epistolary form is irritatingly “literary” and the reiterated fairy-tale formula—those hundreds of paragraphs beginning “There was once…”—creates portentousness rather than power or pathos. Many a reader will fall by the way, which is a great pity, since it is here that the central event of the novel is recounted. Nine masked SA youths climb over Amsel’s fence, knock out the fat sheeny’s teeth, all thirty-two of them and roll him in the snow. Eight of them are named, the ninth (it is plain to the reader, though not to Matern) is Matern. When the snowman melts, out steps a thin young man, who heads for a dentist and thirty-two gold teeth, who survives, who in fact eventually becomes a mineowner, the owner of a mine which (we are told with stultifying frequency) “produces neither potash nor iron nor coal.” Grass’s overwhelming taste for the allegorical, or perhaps we should rather say the quasi-allegorical, betrays him into doubling this transformation scene with the sea-change of Jenny, the fat little would-be ballet dancer, who is rolled into a snowball by nasty Tulla, and emerges as a thin ballet dancer when the snow melts. What is Jenny doing in the book? Just another figure, you may say, featuring legitimately on so large a canvas, with no need…
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