Category: Gunter Grass

book review – Crabwalk


This story echoes some of the same themes of The Reader about the war and guilt but is more of a modern parable of our times. The problem with writing about the internet is that there is already a slighty dated feel to the online world Gunter Grass describes.

The big questions he is trying to answer are around the idea of guilt and responsibility. In war is the sinking of a ship carrying refugees something that can be mourned over in the same way that some of the losses on the sides of victors are commemorated? Does the wartime generation have a responsibility to the way that history is passed down and interpreted by their children?

The background against how those questions are mulled over is the story of a father who has lost the respect of his mother and son. The old woman is able to influence the son and in her tales as a survivor of the sinking if the refugee ship she creates a fledgling Nazi. Her grandson uses the Internet and modern technology to refight the battles of the past. He is fighting his battles against another teenager who picks up the mantle of the Jewish sideof the debate.

Meanwhile the father can see what is happening with the son but is unable to reach him. The ultimate battle between the two teenagers playing at representing the past in the present ends in death and imprisonment.

To a certain degree the blame is squarely on the shoulders of those that propogate the lies from the past with the grandmother, who remains unrepentant. But the father is also useless in the face of the past and unable to correct the path his son is taking.

In one way if the idea of the book was to make you think about the past then it works. But if it was also taking a swipe at the Internet and the way it can be exploited by extremists then it fails because it already feels simplistic and out of date. Still it can provoke some thoughts and that is what good literature should do.

book review – Crabwalk


This story echoes some of the same themes of The Reader about the war and guilt but is more of a modern parable of our times. The problem with writing about the internet is that there is already a slighty dated feel to the online world Gunter Grass describes.

The big questions he is trying to answer are around the idea of guilt and responsibility. In war is the sinking of a ship carrying refugees something that can be mourned over in the same way that some of the losses on the sides of victors are commemorated? Does the wartime generation have a responsibility to the way that history is passed down and interpreted by their children?

The background against how those questions are mulled over is the story of a father who has lost the respect of his mother and son. The old woman is able to influence the son and in her tales as a survivor of the sinking if the refugee ship she creates a fledgling Nazi. Her grandson uses the Internet and modern technology to refight the battles of the past. He is fighting his battles against another teenager who picks up the mantle of the Jewish sideof the debate.

Meanwhile the father can see what is happening with the son but is unable to reach him. The ultimate battle between the two teenagers playing at representing the past in the present ends in death and imprisonment.

To a certain degree the blame is squarely on the shoulders of those that propogate the lies from the past with the grandmother, who remains unrepentant. But the father is also useless in the face of the past and unable to correct the path his son is taking.

In one way if the idea of the book was to make you think about the past then it works. But if it was also taking a swipe at the Internet and the way it can be exploited by extremists then it fails because it already feels simplistic and out of date. Still it can provoke some thoughts and that is what good literature should do.

Crabwalk – post IV

If this book was part of some sort of literature course then possibly it could provoke you to fill pages and pages commenting on the questions it raises.

But as this is a blog and written by someone of only moderate intelligence the response will not be quite as grand.

The main takeaway here is the fact that history, even a corrupted version of it, continues to influence future generations. Even when that history seems to be best left gathering dust – something connected with the Nazi era – it still has the power to capture the imagination and push people into extreme positions.

Is the son guilty because he tries to act out some historical based fantasy of killing a Jew to revenge the Nazi martyr he idolizes? Is the grandmother wrong for filling her grandson’s head with historical biased nonsense? Is the father guilty for never being there to address these issues until faster too late when he decides to put them down as some sort of writing exercise?

Or is there a larger finger being pointed here at the German state for failing to face up to its past and as a result allowing misinterpretations to take hold among amateur historians?

Of course the answer is a mixture of all of the above. The problem is that it is almost impossible to identify and sympathize with any of the characters. Even the murdered boy turns out to be a liar and a fantasist disowned by his parents. There are no rights in this story. Even those who played their parts at the time ended up fading from glory.

A challenging book and one that is attacking a wide number of targets, not least of all is the power of the internet to disseminate false information and spread racial hatred, but it is not that easy to read and as a result is a frustrating experience.

A review will follow shortly…

Crabwalk – post III

Here is a question posed by Gunter Grass: Can those drowned on the losing side in a war be classed as victims?

Of course it is not as simple as that but one of the main aims of this book does seem to be to make you question your own attitude to who deserves pity and who is worthy of damnation.

On top of that conundrum there is the ongoing battle between the extreme right wing and those prepared to engage in a debate representing the Jewish side of that argument.

In the middle Grass describes a man trying to make sense of his own life by writing about his past. Instead his life continues to fall apart and the one constant in it, his mother, seems to be the cause of the majority of his problems.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Crabwalk – post II

As the battle between the father and son – moderate and Nazi – starts to come to the fore the narrator is sidelined. His ex-wife seems unconcerned by their son’s behaviour and the mother is proud that her grandson is defending her own views.

As a result the narrator turns up at memorials to the sunken ship, surfs the web to catch the latest propaganda put out by his son and then turns his hand towards his own research.

If this is a book that is partly making a veiled attack on the web and the power of the internet to disseminate not just racist propaganda but factually incorrect history then it is successful.

But in terms of it charting the personal journey the writer makes as he delves into his past and pulls on his material for a novel it is harder going. Although his story is taking shape sadly no one around him seems interested and as a result you sense he is writing for a selected audience of one.

More tomorrow…

Crabwalk – post I

This is a classic Grass story told at different levels all inter connected and all being slowly peeled back like an onion. When they collide you hit the centre.

A washed up journalist born in a war time disaster is pushed by his mother and some sort of creative writing teacher into putting down his experiences on paper. They focus on his arrival into the world which coincided with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

His mother was on board the ship and the sinking, as a result of a Russian submarine torpedo, ended a vessel that had started life as a Strength Through Joy holiday ship.

The ship is sunk when it is carrying refugees, injured soldiers and the ships crew. That is one strand of the story telling the story of that night.

But there is also the historical context with the ship being named after the leading Nazi agitator in Switzerland who becomes a martyr after being shot at close range by a Jew determined to settle some scores for the abuse of his people in Germany. That story along with the added history of the Russian submarine captain is the second strand.

Then the third strand is the conflict between father and son after the narrator discovers that under the influence of his mother his son is spouting off pro-Nazi views about the ship.

The battle is being fought in cyberspace and there is a comment there from Grass about the contest online for the hearts and souls.

The book flits back and forth between the strands but they are all being peeled back and the sense of a showdown between the ships hull and the torpedo, father and son and truth and lies is always hovering over the narrative.

More tomorrow…

book of books – The Tin Drum


There are certain books you come to with a baggage that has been handed to you by the media, word of mouth and your own expectations. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass falls into that category because you start reading it with the knowledge that he is one of Germany’s most famous writers, is embroiled in controversy over his Nazi past and won a Nobel prize. There is even a film version of this book, which I have not seen, which for those that have will also add to the noise before you even turn a page.

There is also a slight intimidation in the length, not far off 600 pages, that puts it into the middle category of not a major undertaking like War & Peace but equally not a slim volume that can be consumed quickly.

Plot summary
A boy named Oskar is telling his life story from the comfort of a mental hospital explaining that from the age of three he decided not to grow up and so remained for many years three foot high. The other event on his third birthday is the drum he is given as a present. He drums his way through most of the next twenty seven years but the landscape around him changes. On the family front his mother, who has two lovers, dies and one of his presumptive fathers dies after defending the Polish Post Office in Danzig. In terms of his education Oskar is unable to fit into a school environment and mainly communicates through his drum and uses his high pitched scream that shatters glass. His life changes after he meets another midget Bebra who advises him how to behave and then after the war starts drafts him into the propaganda company cheering the troops. Meanwhile Oskar has used his third drumstick to get the family shop girl Maria pregnant but she marries his remaining presumptive father and the son Kurt is never acknowledged as being his. Following the end of the war and the Soviet takeover of Danzig Oskar and family head for Düsseldorf where Oskar starts a jazz band that makes him rich and falls in love with a nurse living in an apartment opposite his own. The nurse turns up dead and Oskar takes the blame – hence the mental hospital – but on his thirtieth birthday the news comes through that the real killer has confessed and he might be acquitted and sent out into an uncertain future.

That’s the gist of it but there are numerous episodes that have been missed but the key point is that there is a development of Oskar that is unique and although delayed takes him into some strange places and links him with some very unusual characters.

Is it well written?
The start is a challenge and it takes a fairly long time before any sort of interest grows in Oskar who is not only a deliberate freak but very annoying at times. Where you start to appreciate Grass is when it starts to dawn that in a way Oskar is a metaphor for the stunted ambitions firstly for the Poles to have an independent nation and then later for there to be a sane voice against the violence and bitterness of the post-war Germany. The character of Oksar becomes more likeable when he starts to speak and by the end the drumming and the height are not the issue it is the idea that he is frightened of the world, despite everything he has done, that is the image that you remember. There is a large amount going on here that at first is not only obvious but is also not engaging. It is only when the history starts to dictate events that the book gains a momentum independent of the main characters. Because of the length of the book Grass is also able to deploy various techniques and involved the reader sometimes in a historical battle scene, a rags to riches success story or even a thriller.

Should it be read?
This deserves to be read because it not only contains a very good story but it is a challenging book that almost deliberately throws in the face of the reader a collection of ugly, freakish characters that it is almost impossible to like. The struggle he makes you go through is worth it because the ending is something that is very thought provoking. It is also a good idea to read works of literature from other cultures because it not only provides a different geographical perspective on the world but also throws up a different writing style. I would recommend this book to anyone that was prepared to work at it and stick with it until the end but for a casual holiday read it would not make it into hand luggage. That is a shame because it does deserve to be read but it is a reality.

Summary
Oskar the midget grows up in a world that is tainted by the evil and actions of others and realises at the end that hiding behind a childhood façade is not a long term solution