grass-onion

(Published in the Business Standard, April 14, 2015)

When I heard that Gunter Grass had died at 87, in the town of Lubek, I thought of what he had been at 17 and 18. He was still a boy then, despite what he’d seen in World War Two. He weighed just 110 pounds in his Waffen SS uniform after the 850-calorie diet in the US Army-run camp he had reached after his surrender.

The boy, sensitive, already a storyteller by nature, was slow to understand that the word “capitulation” meant “final, incontrovertible”. The conquering US soldiers’ ability to chew gum was impressive; so were their silent rubber soles in contrast to his army’s jackboots. The Third Reich was over, but even when the American education officer showed them the pictures of Bergen-Belsen, the corpses, the ovens, he couldn’t believe it. He wrote in Peeling The Onion, the 2007 memoir that came out eight years after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“You mean Germans did that?” we kept asking.

“Germans could never have done that.”

“Germans don’t do that.”

Drafted into the Waffen SS at a late stage of the war, he had not done any of that, or participated in any military action of any significance. But “they” did, “they” had, and for the rest of his life, he would be burdened. “One word evokes the other: Schulden, Schuld,” he wrote. “Debts, guilt.”

Grass at 19, 20, away from home in Dusseldorf; he filled out, put muscle back on when he found work as a sculptor. His job was to chisel tombstones, and change the names. The inscriptions – “such as: ‘Death is the Gate To Life’” – were recyclable. In his twenties he tried to write his first novel, The Kashubians, but he didn’t get very far. He managed to kill off all his characters by the end of the first few chapters, so there were no more chapters to write.

But he had been writing all his life anyway, sketching, making notes. His hands were restless, they never stopped. At the Bittweg tram stop, waiting to go home, he would see a line of stonecutting establishments, including the firm of Moog; he put it in The Tin Drum, his most famous novel, as C. Schmoog, sandstone and basalt specialists. When they were not working on tombstones, he and his fellow apprentices restored the arms and wings of park statues that had been maimed in the bombing.

In the 1950s, Grass travelled to Paris. He was close to thirty years old, and he was smoking Parisiennes, deep in conversation with friends and family, when a three-year-old boy came into the room. The boy had a toy drum, a tin toy, that he struck with wooden sticks; he refused to leave or to stop, and he circled the table, drumming determinedly. Then the child left, but his image stayed with Grass: “It would be a long time before the bolt slid open, the flood of images was released and with the images, words I had been saving since childhood.”

He wrote poems and plays (Mister, Mister; The Flood), and then The Tin Drum came out in 1959. The New York Times reviewer recognised its genius, calling it remarkable, and calling Grass “probably the most authentic literary talent to appear in Germany in 25 years”. But, Orville Prescott added in his 1963 review, “It is very German and in many episodes very repulsive… It is gross, grotesque, gruesome and horrible throughout.” Grass wrote many other striking and memorable works – From The Diary of a Snail, The Flounder, The Rat, My Century, Crabwalks – but it was The Tin Drum that readers remembered most and that made the most powerful impact.

In 1987, Grass and his wife came to Calcutta for the staging of one of his plays, The Plebieans Rehearse The Uprising. He made fast friends there among the city’s writers, notably Sunil Gangopadhyay; he caught up with some of them, including the painter Shuvaprasanna, when he went back for a visit in 2005. The city made a striking impression on him. For a while, Grass said, he could not write at all – he set down drawings until the words came back. His account of his time in Calcutta and Bangladesh was called Show Your Tongue, in a reference to Ma Kali:

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“Kali Puja announced, I saw Calcutta descend on us. Three thousand slums, usually rapt in themselves, crouched low by walls or sewer water, now all ran out, rampant, beneath the new moon, the night and the goddess on their side. Saw, in the holes of uncountable mouths, the lacquered tongue of black Kali flutter red. Heard her smack her lips: I, numberless, from all the gutters and drowned cellars. I, set free, sickle-sharp I. I show my tongue, I cross banks, I abolish borders. I make an end.”

Grass’s reputation was severely tarnished, mostly outside Germany, in the 2000s when the revelations about his wartime past came to light; Grass said in an interview that he should have written his memoir sooner. The shame had silenced him for some decades, but in 2007, he spoke eloquently enough in Sweden at the Nobel Banquet: “I come from a land of book-burning.” Writers, he said, were such a threat to churches, the politburo and the mass media because they saw truth in the plural, they were unable to leave the past in peace, they cast doubt on the victors of history by giving the losers a voice.

These were all flaws Grass had himself, in ample measure. But he also had wisdom, and an intimate understanding of the nature of evil. In The Rat, he anticipated some of the most pressing arguments of our own decade with chilling prescience:

“Towards the end of human history, the human race had developed a soothing, appeasing language, which spared people’s feelings by never calling anything by its name, which sounded rational even when it represented nonsense as wisdom. Marvellous how their politicians succeeded in making words supple and bending them to their purpose. They said that the more terror the greater is the security.”