Günter Grass: The Shriek that Shattered Glass

Gunter Grass...A Life Less Ordinary
Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass…A Life Less Ordinary

No writer from Germany has had a comparable impact in the last half-century. No German writer since Goethe has so widely been read as Günter Grass


[dropcap]G[/dropcap]ünter Wilhelm Grass passed away on Monday, 13th April, after a brief hospitalization. The remarkable global attention the death of Grass drew, and the untainted grief felt by readers all across the world at his exit, tells us that the love for books still lingers in our breasts.

Somewhere a severed horse’s head is spilling over with ravenous eels; a criminal is hiding from view seeking refuge beneath a peasant woman’s layered skirts; and a child is deciding to stop his growth, and stay three years old forever by falling down the stairs and succeeds, at the same time acquiring the power to let out a high pitched shriek that will shatter any glass he directs it at; aside from that undeniable power, he is also repeatedly pounding his tin drum, which he absolutely refuses to let go of.

We live in an age of sketchy and deceptive world where vampires and zombies stalk. Sadly though, this has gotten to become the order of the day. Yet, in spite of the conceited disquiet in some circles, in the better part of the fictional world there is more legitimacy than fantasy.

Whereas, Gabriel García Márquez’s  Macondo, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi were non-existent in the real world, the case of the free city of Danzig (under the League of Nations then, Gdansk in Poland now) of Günter Grass was not so. But all these writers of our time used imagination to supplement reality, not to break away from it.

The Tin Drum is fifty five and half years old now, and despite its immense and continuing acceptance, its technique — magic realism — has largely given way, in Europe, to other forms of narration. Francis Ford Cappola had said about his 1979 film Apocalypse Now that it was not about Vietnam, but Vietnam. Grass’ novel The Tin Drum was not about twentieth century, but twentieth century.

The Tin Drum has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the moment it was published. On Grass’65th birthday, Russian-German writer Lev Kopelev wrote, “Günter Grass’ books present surprising and extremely contradictory combinations of opposites. Minutely detailed presentations of real things and scientifically precise descriptions of historical events are melted together with fairy tales, legends, myths, fables, poems and wild fantasies to produce his own special poetical world.”

No writer from Germany has had a comparable impact in the last half-century. No writer from Germany since Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was so widely read as Grass.

Despite gaining wide acceptance, Magic Realism is a mostly misunderstood writing style. The trouble with the technique is that people only hear half of it (magic) without paying attention to the other half (realism).

But if the writing style contained purely magic, then nobody would take it seriously. However, the magic in magic realism is rooted in the real.

As a matter of fact, the technique grows out of the real and highlights it in alluring and fortuitous ways, that stays like a lead weight in the reader’s subconscious.

Grass wrote The Tin Drum during the late 1950s living in a basement apartment in Paris. A passage from the novel reads:

“There was once a grocer who closed his store one day in November, because something was doing in town; taking his son Oskar by the hand, he boarded a Number 5 streetcar and rode to the Langasser Gate, because there as in Zoppot and Langfuhr the synagogue was on fire. The synagogue had almost burned down and the firemen were looking on, taking care that the flames should not spread to the other buildings. Outside the wrecked synagogue, men in uniform and others in civilian clothes piled up books, ritual objects and strange kinds of cloth. The mound was set on fire and the grocer took advantage of the opportunity to warm his fingers and his feelings over the public blaze.”

In what later came to be known as the Danzig Trilogy, Grass came up with the Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). The former was a novella that revolved around a protagonist with a bizarrely large Adam’s apple that set him apart from the rest of mankind. The Dog Years, Grass Perhaps had intended to be his magnum opus, examining three decades of the German history with an end note of frustration.

His other books include From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Flounder (1977), The Meeting at Telgate (1979), Headbirths, or The Germans are Dying Out (1980), The Rat(1986), and Show Your Tongue (1989). Apart from being a novelist, Grass was also a poet, essayist, dramatist, sculptor and graphic artist. He always designed his own book jackets. His books often contained illustrations by himself.

The narrative in Show Your Tongue takes place in Calcutta. Grass had been to Calcutta twice. The first hand-written draft of the book, before he sat down in front of the typewriter, contained superimposed images of text and drawings.

“Writers are involved not only with their inner, intellectual lives, but also with the process of daily life”, said Grass in an interview with the Paris Review magazine. “For me, writing, drawing, and political activism are three separate pursuits; each has its own intensity. I happen to be especially attuned to and engaged with the society in which I live. Both my writing and my drawing are invariably mixed up with politics, whether I want them to be or not. I don’t actually set out with a plan to bring politics into something I’m writing. It’s much more that with the third or fourth time I scratch away at a subject, I discover things that have been neglected by history. While I would never write a story that was simply and specifically about some political reality, I see no reason to omit politics, which has such a great, determining power over our lives. It seeps into every aspect of life in one way or another.”

He was a longtime supporter of the Social Democratic Party and has been known to write speeches for Willy Brandt for almost ten years, before relinquishing his associations with the party and the Berlin Academy of Arts as an expression of resentment against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Germany.

The food one favors tells a lot about the individual. Grass loved home cooked ordinary peasant food like, smoked goose breast with sauerkraut and caraway seeds. In 2006, days before his memoirs Peeling the Onion was due for release, in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Grass sought redemption by confessing that he had been a member of the elite Nazi Waffen-SS. “It was a weight on me”, said Grass, “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”

In 2012, Grass’ controversial poem, What Must be Said, came out, reproving Israel’s nuclear drive and hostility toward Iran. In the poem Grass said, he had kept silent on the issue for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. Grass had also equated the 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to Nazi caricatures of Jews. In opposing the first Gulf war, he expressed his anger toward his own country accusing German arms manufacturers of supplying weapons to the then Iraqi regime.

A thread of dance and music ran through both of Grass’ two marriages. His first, with Swiss dancer, Anna Margareta Schwarz, ended in divorce in 1978. His second marriage was with Ute Grunert, an organist. While he had four children with Anna, he also became a step father to two sons with Ute. Ute also gave him two daughters.

Those locks of black hair falling across the forehead, the drooping walrus mustache and the bifocals slipping halfway down the nose, all have now become elements of the fabric in our memory.  Let us savor the moment by being grateful when words written by one man achieves what the moon should do and move the tides.

(Günter Wilhelm Grass, 1999 Nobel laureate for Literature, Born: 16 October 1927, Died: 13 April 2015; Most significant works – The Danzig Trilogy:  The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.)





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