Book Review: Günter Grass’ Peeling the Onion

Günter Grass articulates his life, eloquently describing the troubles of the post-war generation and the desperate attempt to rebuild a life out of ruins while coming to terms with one’s own guilt.

The shock over German novelist Günter Grass’ admission of his youthful participation in the Waffen SS has come and gone. What remains is the divided critique and a long list of questions to which the answers lie conveniently in the eye of the beholder: Is this man – one of the foremost sociopolitical commentators of the post war era, a Nobel Laureate and one of the most influential and respected authors of our time – in fact guilty? And if so, of what?

Does Grass’s admission undermine the relevance of his views and diminish his position as one of Europe’s revered intellectuals? Or to be blunt and to put it in the starkest black and white terms, is Grass a fraud?

The raging debate raging has reached schismatic terms, drafting the supporters and opponents of the writer and artist into warring camps.

Yet, the Günter Grass of Peeling the Onion, his newly released memoir of his life before The Tin Drum in 1959, reveals less a persona of immaculate moral integrity, than a man ashamed of an unspoken burden that has weighed on his conscience for over sixty years,

“(…) I was silent,” Grass writes. “Yet because so many others remained silent as well, the temptation to refrain from seeing one’s own failure, to, alternatively, claim general guilt, or to tell of oneself only in the impersonal third-person: He was, saw, had, said, he was silent…, remains. (…) As soon as I call for the boy that I was as a thirteen year old, interrogate him strictly and feel the desire to judge him, possibly as a stranger whose necessities leave me cold, I see a half-grown kid (…) [fleeing] onto his mother’s lap. He cries ‘I was just a child, just a child…”

The shame that Grass refers to opens up the discourse on the inhibition of independent opinion inside the environment of the late 1930’s and early forties and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Third Reich. It is questionable whether a child exposed to the relentless propaganda of the national socialists, surrounded with little more than widespread juvenile blind faith and pride in his country he thought encircled by enemies and in which any dissident opinion was smothered, could develop a independent stand. However, Grass does not seek excuses. He speaks of belief in the Third Reich and the Führer with undeviating honesty, not allowing the reader to feel pity.

“My deed cannot be ascribed to juvenile stupidity. No driving force was on my back. No self-inflicted guilt, like doubting the infallibility of the Führer, demanded to be satisfied by voluntary fervor. (…) I missed the opportunity [to learn] to doubt.”

The author, himself a refugee by the end of the war, has no material evidence of his pre-war years. His witness is exclusively through memory, undeniably shaped by “moods, often suffering migraines” and whose “reputation” for being “purchasable” undermines its already debatable credibility. Grass tries to give us insight into the workings of his mind, leading the reader on an uncertain journey into the past, encountering vague and elusive evidence of recollections, at times driving his “guest” into a metaphorical dead end, a memory either enriched by imagination or falsified by age and stress.

Grass often doubts his memory, confusing his actions with the ones of his renowned literary characters, only to inform the reader: “No…That wasn’t me.” We are pulled in, only to be frustrated by the lack of solid evidence.

Reading, one becomes aware of just how hard it was to bring all these emotions and acknowledgments to paper. The rage, grief, remorse, joy…  shine through the pages, emphasized by the at times frenetic language constructions of the author,

“Outside of school I learned to take apart a Karabiner 98 into its constituent parts and put it back together in a few minutes as a ready-to-shoot rifle, I could work the search light on the 8,8 Flak cannon and – being a cannoneer – the turret of a tank; during the drill I also learned to look for cover fast, to say “Yes sir!” on command and march two-by-two; later I learned to organize food, to smell danger, … also to endure the sight of shredded corpses and an espalier of hanged soldiers; out of fear I wet my pants, learned quickly to be afraid, started to sing in a forest, could sleep while standing, save myself in fake stories… I even learned to read the future out of people’s palms, yet I was far away from a secondary school certificate that would grant me entrance into university.”

Through these pages, Grass reveals the experiences that would eventually become motifs for his novels and characters, allowing the reader in, while simultaneously pushing him away from things too personal.

What remains is a retrospective of a life pulled together out of vague memories, an identity that belongs to the author, one that he himself is sometimes incredulous of yet, no matter how much he would like to, cannot deny.

Share This Post

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone