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Günter Grass's dark developments exposed in The Box

Setting forth an idea of historical truth as unknowable and ineffable, The Box raises uncomfortable questions about its author's own murky past, writes Sam Munson.

The Danzig-born writer Günter Grass requires little introduction. A major contributor to postwar European literature, a prominent figure on the centre-Left political scene in Germany, a Nobel Prize winner, and a one-time Nazi soldier, his biography amounts to a microcosm of Germany's own broader cultural and political life in the years after the fall of the Third Reich.

Grass is known to English readers primarily through his first novel, 1959's The Tin Drum, which commenced a massive trilogy about his hometown of Danzig and recounted, in the first person, the bizarre adventures of Oskar Matzerath, a self-stunted dwarf, a peripatetic social critic, and almost certainly a distorted stand-in for his creator. Through its sexual and social frankness, this book brought Grass initial notoriety and eventual fame, serving as a public prelude to a long and varied (and even more public) career.

Grass is a dramatist, essayist, and poet as well as a novelist. In 1999 he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Seven years later he astonished the world by admitting, in his semi-autobiographical, semi-novelistic book Peeling the Onion, that he had served not just in the youth auxiliary of the German army but in the Waffen-SS itself. A bold move, to reveal such a secret in so open and permanent a way, and one that paid off: the shock of Grass's confession dissipated remarkably rapidly. His chief German critic, the historian Joachim Fest, died shortly after the announcement and Grass was able to resume his career as a writer and self-appointed arbiter of public political morality without further interruption. Peeling the Onion appeared in Germany in 2006; two years later Grass published The Box, now available to English readers in an excellent version by Krishna Winston, the eminent translator of Peter Handke, Werner Herzog, and several other previous books by Grass.

This most recent volume is a companion piece, in a certain sense, to Peeling the Onion. It, too, is a work of semi-autobiography. Its premise is that a nameless, ageing and celebrated writer has gathered his eight children by three different women and given them free rein to recount their memories of their childhoods with him: five boys (Patrick, Jorg, Taddel, Jasper, Paul) and three girls (Lara, Lena, Nana). Uniting their disparate stories is the presence of Marie, known variously as Old Marie or Mariechen, a longtime acquaintance of the family and a professional photo-portraitist, who is known in various guises - second mother, conscience, possessor of secret knowledge - to all of the gathered children.

She also owns a camera, a discontinued model from the early days of Germany's postwar period, which somehow makes mysterious and prophetic images. One photograph predicts the crutches that Paul will require as a result of a bone disease. Another solves the mystery of a cigarette theft undertaken in his adolescence by Jasper, one of the younger children. The camera in question, an old Agfa, once available for nine marks fifty (more expensive than the Zeiss-Ikon model named after Baldur von Shirach, but, Grass implies, well worth the higher price) is the "box" of the title; it explains, too, the book's subtitle, Memories from the Darkroom. The camera's power is considerable: it not only captures the wishes of its subjects, it can inflict metaphorical punishments on them as well.

"You must have seen us in her darkroom, transformed into a small horde, the children, the mothers, and me, crouching around a fire, wrapped in animal skins and chewing on roots, gnawing on bones… She transplanted all of you, but finally only Taddel and Jasper… into the Middle Ages condemning you to child labour on a treadmill… [She] snapped picture after picture of you, chained to the treadmill and quivering under lashes, day in, day out."

So speaks the unnamed father, describing the camera's more frightening images but also, we imagine, an art very similar to his own. Readers of The Box will find many such detours into the bizarre or speculative. Largely plotless, it follows the alternately slumberous and chaotic path of family life and the divagations and contradictions of human memory with great precision. The father's literary career forms a mere background to the lives of his numerous offspring. The financial success that comes in his late thirties, for example, prompts no long passages of literary meditation on the children's part; its major consequence is that they get to live in a larger house.

Thus the narrative advances, through fleeting and inconsequential-seeming events: the cigarette robbery, the purchase of a puppy, the father taking two rolls of liverwurst on a cultural mission to China in the 1970s. As a structural approximation of the obscure, swift assaults our pasts make on our various presents, this method succeeds impressively.

"And Pat, our firstborn, had a slew of girlfriends, but he couldn't figure out what he wanted. Admit it, big brother! When people asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, you said, A cloud pusher… There's something to what you say about the girls, at least every now and again. That's how I am. Nothing ever lasted very long. Not with Maxi, either… All she wanted to do was listen to Mireille Mathieu twittering, and soon I found the whole thing boring. Maybe Maxi did too. There were tears and so on."

This is Jorg speaking and Patrick responding, a fair sample of the children's chorus that Grass has summoned to tell his own story. It's unpredictable, competitive - even contradictory. Grass burst upon the literary scene speaking in the voice of a mad, brilliant dwarf; speaking in the voice or voices of children is not at all out of character for him (and it should be noted, here, that Marie always holds the Agfa waist-high to take her otherworldly photos, as though she was shooting them from the long-vanished perspective of Oskar Matzerath).

But what, really, is the point of this slender book? Not merely, one hopes, to offer up a second instalment of autobiography, albeit one with an unconventional structure. If this is not the case, however, it is hard to know what Grass intended. A troubling possibility is that we are witnessing an attempt - a subtle, careful one - at self-forgiveness, both for Grass's numerous and admitted sins of the flesh, and for his involvement in the army of the Third Reich, which the world seems to have agreed to treat as a youthful indiscretion. After all, the book's central metaphor suggests that photographic evidence, in the end, is just as subject to distortion as written testimony, a claim with terrifying implications for the investigation, literary or otherwise, of 20th-century German history. Some of the most powerful documents of the Holocaust, after all, are visual.

Even setting metaphor aside, Grass has interpolated several solos into this brief chorale which obliquely address the burden of historical truth:

"Which is why the children must never find out what their father suppressed. Not a word about guilt and other unwelcome deliveries."

And: "That is why, to make you believe me, I must lie."

And: "Now the father is shrinking, wants to vanish into thin air. Now the suspicion is voiced in whispers: he, and he alone, was Mariechen's heir…"

Grass appears to be playing a double game here: at once admitting that he is in control of his own history and at the same time claiming to be a half-servant to an artform that forces its practitioners to distort the truth ("…to make you believe me, I must lie"). The untrustworthiness of language and images is a sustained theme in postwar German writing, from Celan to Sebald. And it is important to remember that the real Grass confessed his questionable past. But his analogue does not. Which places The Box on the verge of the teasingly self-exculpatory here. Considering its author's past and the controversy over it, the book's suggestion that historical truth is finally unknowable sounds as much like deliberate obfuscation as it does like masterful irony. Which forces us to ask: what else does Grass have in his box?


The Box

Gunter Grass

Translated by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, is published by Doubleday.

Updated: November 4, 2010 04:00 AM