Günter Grass: four key works
From a novel that set the template for magical realism to a wartime memoir which scandalised a nation
Monday 13 april 2015
The Tin Drum (1959, first English translation 1961)
Grass’s first novel remains his most famous, and generally acknowledged as one of the key works of modern European literature. Told by Oskar Matzerath from his confinement in a mental hospital, it recounts a half-mad life inflected by the delirium of 20th-century history. “Today,” he says, “I know that all things are watching, that nothing goes unseen, that even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings.”
At the age of three, Oskar resolves that he will never grow up and hurls himself down the stairs to ensure he will retain the body of a child. Born in the Free City of Danzig in 1924, his “presumptive fathers” are his mother’s husband – a dedicated Nazi – and her lover, a Polish patriot.
Oskar is swept along by the convulsions of history, joining a troupe of performing dwarfs sent to entertain German troops at the frontline following the Nazi invasion of Poland. His picaresque adventures then lead him through periods as a nude model, criminal gangmaster, and jazz drummer.
The mix of political drama, myth and allegory made the novel highly influential in the development of magical realist fiction.
Cat and Mouse (1961, first English translation 1963)
The second book in the “Danzig trilogy” which began with The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse is told by the only friend of Joachim Mahlke, a lonely and disaffected boy growing up during the second world war.
“The Great Mahlke” as his friend mythologises him, joins the narrator and other boys exploring a half-sunken minesweeper and a sunken barge. Mahlke salvages a series of objects from the wrecks, to sell or keep.
When a U-boat captain visits his school to crow about his military triumphs, Mahlke resolves to steal his Iron Cross, and is duly expelled. He then joins the army, where his own successes in battle earn him the Iron Cross in turn, but his earlier crime bars him from delivering his own speech to the school. After this, he feels little reason to continue, and deserts.
Reviewing it in the New York Times, Stephen Spender praised the novel as “a brilliantly realised story” which portrays “the survival of individual human qualities in this age of wars and state-directed politics”.
The Rat (1986, first English translation 1987)
“I have always felt we speak too much about human beings,” Günter Grass told the Paris Review in 1991, in response to a question about why he was drawn to animal protagonists in books such as The Rat, The Flounder and From the Diary of a Snail. “This world is crowded with humans, but also with animals, birds, fish, and insects. They were here before we were and they will still be here should the day come when there are no more human beings.”
The Rat envisages such a scenario, with its narrator – none other than The Tin Drum’s Oskar Matzerath – engaging in an often dreamlike dialogue with a female rat he has been given for Christmas about the approaching end of humankind.
Peeling the Onion (2006, first English translation 2007)
Grass’s account in his memoir of his time in the Waffen-SS during the closing months of the second world war sent shockwaves through German society, proving deeply problematic for those who had regarded him as an exposer of national truths. Famously, Lech Walesa, also born in Danzig, by then Gdansk, argued that Grass should surrender his honorary citizenship of the city.
In the book, Grass peels the onion of memory, revealing how, at the age of 17, he wanted to join the navy but was drafted into the SS and subsequently became a prisoner of war in a camp where he may – or may not – have become friends with future pope Joseph Ratzinger. More than a straightforward recounting of events, Peeling the Onion becomes a multi-layered interrogation of history, memory, truth and its opposite.