Headbirths, or The Germans Are Dying Out

by Günter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 136 pp., $9.95

The Safety Net

by Heinrich Böll, translated by Leila Vennewitz
Knopf, 314 pp., $13.95

Heinrich Böll
Heinrich Böll; drawing by David Levine

Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll have both amply demonstrated their staying power and (more strikingly in the case of the former) their versatility. In their new books they have both (Grass more strikingly than Böll) turned into what in my childhood were called “worrits.” Since we can worry well enough by ourselves, and in any case lack no assistance or guidance from newspapers and TV, this may seem oddly supererogatory. However, these are at least distinguished worrits. Böll has the benefit of a degree of “psychological depth,” characters to dip into, and a story which like all good stories keeps the reader wondering what will happen next. Grass has the benefit of himself, or his “manner,” and the Matter of Germany (including the World): his characters here are the shadows of caricatures, extreme instances of the average, the somewhat intellectual, the representatively serious-minded man in a fairly busy street, while his package tour of a plot moves too fast for the Grass we know, and nearly always admire and sometimes even love, to grow under its hastening feet.

In Headbirths Grass has visited China (1979), and speculates on how things would be if there were as many Germans as there are Chinese, namely some 950 million. “Could the world bear it? Wouldn’t the world have to defend itself (but how?) against such a multitude?” As it is, there are barely 80 million Germans, counting both Germanies, and so, if you reckon without the foreigners (“which was the only natural and obvious thing to do”), you are forced to the conclusion that the Germans are dying out. “Living space without people. Is such a thought possible? Is such a thought permissible? What would the world be like without Germans?” How Americans may react to this I don’t know, but the British reader will smile sourly: he lives in a country where the essential services are operated chiefly by “foreigners”—well, they are colored—except when white union leaders fall out with white managers and a strike ensues. The Germans should worry!

Grass poses the second of his not altogether outré questions: “Isn’t there a certain grandeur in stepping out of history, in forgoing progeny, turning into a mere object of study for younger nations?” (The British reader will stop smiling sourly and burst into tears.) Thereupon he creates two characters—headbirths which can hardly have given him much of a headache—two well-intentioned German worriers, Harm Peters and his wife Dörte, who cannot make up their minds whether or not to bring a child into the world, “this world,” whose most frequent utterance is “on the one hand” followed by “on the other,” and sends them on a package tour of darkest Asia.

The purpose of the tour is not, of course, to visit temples (though Dörte gets carried away temporarily by mysticism induced by self-frustrated maternalism), but to “confront reality,” and (the souvenirs of the…

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