Nobel laureate (1999), and prolific and versatile writer Gunter Grass remains best known for The Tin Drum (1959), English translation 1961). Critics and admirers have tended to compare what he continued to write with this early work, which was seen as having set a touchstone that his later writings did not always rise up to. When magical realism was being perceived as a Latin American representational style, Grass effortlessly made it natural to the description of Germany and the Second World War in this, his milestone novel.
While awarding him the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy also praised him for “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them” which he achieved in The Tin Drum, narrated by the protagonist Oskar.
Thus Salman Rushdie, one of his long-standing admirers, tweeted at Grass’ obituary: “Drum for him, little Oskar”.
When magical realism was being perceived as a Latin American representational style, Grass effortlessly made it natural to the description of Germany and the Second World War.
Born in 1927 in Danzig to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Grass was raised as a Catholic. His first major work was the Danzig trilogy, the first of which was The Tin Drum. The second and third books in the trilogy were Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.
The Tin Drum established Grass’ style unequivocally as characterized by magical realism, irony, and a concern for the marginalized. Grass’ unrealistic/fantastic narration of episodes – perhaps paradoxically – functions as a powerful weapon of satire, and especially political satire. The protagonist of this novel, Oskar Matzerath, is portrayed as resolving not to grow beyond the height of a three-year old, thereby already challenging the limits of realistic representation; but more pertinently making a symbolic point about Germany’s moral dwarfishness during the Nazi years.
Controversy dogged The Tin Drum meanwhile; it was proscribed for a while for its supposed immorality. It continued to engage the interest of artists and intellectuals, nevertheless. A film adaptation was made in 1979 which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 1977 came The Flounder; based on the folktale of “The Fisherman and his Wife”, this also had a mixed reception. It seemed to denounce feminism, and was denounced in turn by feminists. Arguably his next successful work was Crabwalk (2002).While also focusing on the Second World War, it portrayed the Germans as victims.
Further controversy was courted by his poem “What Must Be” which accused the Israeli government of plotting destruction against Iran. This not only invited a personal attack from the Israeli government but also a ban from visiting Israel in 2012. One inference that may be drawn with certitude about Grass is that he espoused the artist’s freedom of expression. For instance, when the Berlin Academy of Arts refused to join a public reading from the work of the then banned writer Salman Rushdie, who was facing a death threat from Khomeini’s fatwa, Grass resigned in protest.
A remarkable trait in his fiction is the reluctance to being unequivocal. His unreliable narrators tend to intensify the spirit of ambivalence in his work. Oskar is just such a narrator, trapped inside a lunatic asylum. Take the opening sentence of The Tin Drum: “Granted: I AM an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peep-hole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me”.
Grass’ last trilogy was perhaps the most provocative work he ever produced. It comprised his personal memoirs, the first of which, Peeling the Onion, was published in 2006. It caused no less than a furore, best understood by the changed perception of Grass from being the moral conscience of his nation, to having committed ‘moral suicide’. The reason was starkly simple: Grass revealed in this book his involvement with the Waffen-SS as a young man, the military segment of the Nazis and involved in heinous atrocities. This self-exposure was to affect Grass dearly; his admirers were shocked and outraged that he had presumed to condemn political and social crimes in which he had himself been implicated. ‘Hypocrisy’ was the judgement meted out to him by the reading public.
While this admission must have cost Grass great in terms of personal self-worth, aside from public perception and courage taken to make it, the style that he chose to make this announcement in is a significant hallmark of Grass the writer. The work aptly rests on memory which is portrayed as fragile and undependable. Even while ‘confessing’ his inglorious past, he did not assert or declare so much as conjecture and ask, thereby making doubt integral to the understanding of his younger self. In a sense it could be argued that he was speaking on behalf of an entire generation, struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past.
In Grass’ own words: “What I had accepted with stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame…But the burden remained, and no one could lighten it.”
While this admission must mean different, perhaps diametrically opposed, things to different readers (there are many to still defend his past and forgive it on grounds of youth), what it categorically does is to encourage another possibly less simplistic look at The Tin Drum, especially to those who read it before Grass chose to reveal his teenage complicity in the holocaust.
Like Nabokov, or Heller, Grass had the ability to fuse humour and tragedy as farce in a singularly imaginative manner, thereby justifying the citation by the Nobel Committee which awarded him the prize for “frolicsome black fables [that] portray the forgotten face of history”.
His passing has deprived the world of fiction of a giant, who drove a wedge into the dogmas of singular worlds, unilateral truths and categorical assertions.
Just as the Nobel was his greatest but not his sole award – Grass also won the Georg Buchner Prize (1965), was elected honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1993) and was awarded the Hermann Kesten Prize (1995). Gunter Grass was not just a novelist: he was also a poet, playwright, artist and sculptor, besides being a political and social commentator. His passing has deprived the world of fiction of a giant, who drove a wedge into the dogmas of singular worlds, unilateral truths and categorical assertions.