When the death of Gunter Grass was announced recently, among the obituaries and appreciations I read were words of praise for his infamous memoir, Peeling the Onion, first published in Germany in 2006. I remember reading a few reviews when the English translation came out a year later, and being put off. Probably, I read Michael Hoffman’s ill-tempered review in the Guardian which dismissed it as ‘a long and miserably bad book’
Not unnaturally, the reviews focussed on Grass’s revelation, undeniably decades too late, that when in the autumn of 1944, at the age of sixteen, he was drafted into the armed forces, he had been assigned to a unit of the Waffen-SS. Worse, he had ‘carefully incubated his particular shame for 60 years, all the while encouraging others to talk about theirs’ (Hoffman again).
Now, though, I decided to give Peeling the Onion another chance. I’m very glad I did. It is an extraordinary and riveting memoir, in which Grass tells many more stories than the one about the sixteen year-old kid and the Waffen SS. Here are vividly-recounted memories of a bookish lad, his mind animated by German heroes and legends, caught up in the confusion and terror of the Red Army onslaught, dreaming of art as the Third Reich collapses around him. Later, there are flickering memories of hunger in POW camps, and life amidst the ruins of Germany’s bombed-out cities. We catch glimpses of a youth surviving the hard post-war years by working the black market and doing hard graft hard down a potash mine and as a cemetery stonemason, before slowly establishing himself as an art student, jazz musician, sculptor, poet, and finally novelist.
Grass returns constantly to the three hungers he experienced in those years – for food, sex, and art. They were the appetites that drove him, and his narrative is stuffed with hearty, lyrical and lubricious passages that celebrate Grass’s love of preparing, eating and sharing food – the more meat, globules of fat, and peasant origins there are, so much the better – and for more flesh in the form of sex, plenty of it, with innumerable women.
Grass is nothing if not critical of his younger self (of whom he often speaks in the third person); he portrays himself as an unthinking person, unconcerned with politics, essentially selfish, self-centred, egotistical, and unheeding of the love and sacrifice of others, particularly his parents and his sister.
At the same time, Peeling the Onion is a meditation on memory and its fragmentary and unreliable nature.
Memory likes to play hide-and-seek, to crawl away. It tends to hold forth, to dress up, often needlessly. Memory contradicts itself; pedant that it is, it will have its way.
Indeed, there are times when the reader can never be sure that Grass is a reliable narrator. He admits that:
Something flagrantly significant could be missing.
And sometimes he mixes up his younger self with his greatest creation:
It was Oskar who compelled me to haunt the misty corners of my early years. He gave me leave to put everything which laid claim to truth between question marks. Oskar laughs at my porous memory. For him, as is plain for all to read, the onion performs a different function, has a different meaning.
Like memory, Grass suggests, onions have many layers, they can both feed us and make us weep. Grass returns to the onion metaphor time after time, and the book is illustrated by his own lithographs of an onion being progressively peeled, layer by layer.
But none of these things are the reason why most people read the book – and eviscerated Grass for it – in 2006/7. What angered and shocked people then was his late revelation that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. He was attacked by critics who said that Grass would never have won the Nobel Prize for Literature had this been known, and there were calls on him to give it back. He was denounced by Joachim Fest, the leading German historian of Nazism.
Above all, Grass was accused of hypocrisy. Here was a man who had repeatedly attacked politicians of the Federal Republic such as Kurt Kiesinger, the former Nazi who in the post-war years rose in the Christian Democratic Union to became West German Chancellor in 1966. Along with Heinrich Boll, Grass had written an open letter urging Kiesinger not to accept the chancellorship. As Timothy Garton-Ash expressed it in his 2007 essay in the New York Review of Books:
For more than forty years, ever since he became a famous writer, Günter Grass has been one of the literary world’s most inveterate stone-throwers. […] He has set himself up as a political and moral authority, and delivered harsh judgements. His language has often been intemperate.
It was this that provoked the outrage over the book’s core revelation: ‘not at the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS as a teenager but at the way he has dealt with that fact since’, as Timothy Garton-Ash succinctly put it.
No, his war record is not the cause for outrage. Thousands of young Germans shared the same fate. Many died as a result. The offence is that he should for so many years have made it his stock-in-trade to denounce post-war West Germans’ failure to face up to the Nazi past, while himself so spectacularly failing to come clean about the full extent of his own Nazi past.
Worse still, in retrospect, was his denunciation of the joint visit by Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl to a cemetery in Bitburg in 1985 where forty-nine Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. Most were less that twenty-five years old. Günter Grass could have been one of them. As Garton-Ash says:
To denounce the Bitburg visit without acknowledging that he himself had served in the Waffen-SS was an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, doublethink, and recklessness.
Why Grass remained silent for so long when few would have assigned any modicum of guilt to his involvement we will never know. In Peeling the Onion, he offers this explanation:
For decades, I refused to acknowledge to myself the word and the double letters. What I accepted with the stupid pride of my youth, I wanted to cover up after the war, out of a growing sense of shame. But the burden remained and no one could lighten it. True, during my training as a tank gunner…nothing was to be heard of those war crimes that later came to light, but that claim of ignorance could not obscure the insight that I had been part of a system which had planned, organized and executed the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could be absolved of active complicity, there remained a residue, until today, of what is all too commonly called shared responsibility. I will certainly have to live with it for the rest of my life.
And why, finally, did he decide to come clean? ‘I want to have the last word’, he writes.
Grass does not begin with his time in the Waffen-SS, but several years earlier, evoking his childhood in Danzig, then a a semi-autonomous city-state within Poland mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans. His mother’s cousin, Uncle Franz, was a postman who took part in the defence of the Danzig Polish Post Office after the German invasion in 1939. He had been summarily executed by the Germans, a fact ‘no longer mentioned’ in the family. His name was ‘passed over in silence, as if he had never existed, as if everything connected with him and his family were unspeakable’. This is only one instance of events and disappearances which were, Grass writes, unquestioned by him, a boy who was now a teenager:
Nor did I, even though my childhood had ended with the onset of war, ask any insistent questions. Or was it because I was no longer a child that I dared not ask?
Then there is the school-friend who let slip that his father listened to British radio. He suddenly disappears from school.
Grass writes how, decades later, he learned that the boy’s father had been a Social Democrat MP, had opposed the Nazis, and then, in 1940, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Sutthof concentration camp (two villages away from the country house used by Gunter’s school for excursions – think Liverpool and Colomendy). Soon after, his school-friend’s mother committed suicide, while his father was eventually released to serve in penal battalion, clearing mines on the Russian front. In March 1945, he marched in with the victors, found what remained of his family, settled in Soviet zone, founded a local Social Democratic association which, soon after, was forcibly amalgamated into the Communist Party. Harassed and threatened with arrest, his son – Gunter’s school-friend – meanwhile made a career serving the regime until the Wall came down, at which point he was ‘evaluated’ and ‘reduced to a cipher’.
Such had been the fate of many who were accused of falsifying their biographies and who knew what in their actual biographies needed to be false.
Gunter Grass recalls incidents from his youth: ‘atrocious deeds were being done. Violence in broad daylight’. Soon after his eleventh birthday, on the morning after Kristallnacht, synagogues in Danzig were aflame, Jewish merchants’ windows were shattered. The young boy was a curious spectator:
I watched as the small Langfhur synagogue not far from my school was plundered, pillaged and set on fire by a horde of SA men.
Aged ten, Grass had voluntarily joined the Jungvolk, an organisation that fed into the Hitler Youth, attracted by the promise of a uniform, overnight hikes, camp-fires on the beach, and camaraderie:
No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour.
Gunter’s parents ran a grocery store and allowed their customers credit. The young boy proved particularly adept as a debt collector, knocking on doors on Friday evenings after customers had been paid. The child was so good at collecting debts, the man in his sixties muses, but proved to be such a failure when it came to admitting guilt:
One word evokes the other: Schulden, Schuld, debts, guilt. Two words so close and so deeply rooted in the soil of the German language. But while debts can be mitigated by instalment payments, […] guilt – whether proven, presumed, or concealed – remains, ticking on and on. […] There it is, as the onion sheds skin after skin, permanently inscribed on the youngest skins. […] The brief inscription meant for me reads: I kept silent.
There was the Latin teacher at his school who suddenly was no longer there. Grass admits, ‘I asked no questions even though the moment he was gone the word ‘Stutthof‘ was on everyone’s lips by way of warning.’
When he was around sixteen he served as a Luftwaffe auxiliary, something that was ‘not voluntary, though we experienced it as a liberation from our school routine’. On the parade ground, all the teenage boys were imbued with a sense of national pride, keen to toe the line – but with one exception:
The exception was a lanky boy who was so blond and blue-eyed and whose profile revealed a skull so elongated that the likes of him could be found only in propaganda promoting the Nordic race. Chin, mouth, nose, forehead – each was the epitome of ‘racial purity’ at a stroke. He was a Siegfried, a Baldur, and like Baldur, the Teutonic god of light, he shone brighter than the day. He was untainted: no trace of a wart on neck or temple. He neither lisped nor stuttered when ordered to report. No one could beat him in long-distance running, no one could match his daring when leaping over musty ditches or his agility when clambering over a wall. He could do fifty knee bends without getting tired. He was born to break records. There was nothing, no flaw, to sully the picture. But what made him an exception was that he – whose name, first and last, eludes my
memory – was an insubordinate.
He refused to take part in rifle drill; worse still, he refused to take butt or barrel in hand; and, worst of all, when our dead-earnest drill instructor pressed the carbine on him, he would drop it. Which made him or his fingers criminal.
The boy was punished by being given the revolting task of emptying the latrine, filling a bucket to the brim from the pit the boys shat into and carting it off, only to refuse to wield the weapon once again.
At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. We actually liked the fellow, this oddball, this knuckle-head: ‘Take it! Just hold it!’
His response ran to a scant few words, which soon made the rounds in the form of a whispered quote. But when they took to punishing us on his account and tormented us in the hot sun until we collapsed, we all began to hate him.
The boys beat him and piss on his bed, but ‘he swallowed his humiliation and delivered his by then famous phrase at the next opportunity.’
I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, which had now reached even those in command, but I remember the questions his superiors, all the way up to the commanding officer, asked him and we plagued him with: ‘Why are you doing this, Labour Serviceman?’ ‘What makes you do it, you idiot?’
His unvarying reply became a catchword that has never left me: ‘We don’t do that.’
He stuck to the plural. In a voice neither loud nor soft, yet sonorous, a voice that carried well, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. It was as though he had if not an army then at least a goodly battalion of imaginary insubordinates lined up behind him ready to repeat the phrase after him. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat.
When asked what he meant, he repeated the indefinite ‘that’ and refused to call the object he would not take in his hands by its name.
His behaviour transformed us. From day to day what had seemed solid crumbled. Our hatred was mixed first with amazement, then with admiration expressed in questions like ‘How long can that idiot keep it up?’ ‘What makes him so hard-nosed?’
In the end this morning ritual was cut off by his arrest. Someone would say, ‘He must be a Jehovah’s Witness.’ But the blond, blue-eyed boy with the racially pure profile had never referred to the Bible or Jehovah or any other almighty; he had said simply, ‘Wedontdothat.’
One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone – transferred, it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as proven unfit for service; no, we whispered, ‘He has long been ripe for the concentration camp.’
The months pass. The news is of the Hitler assassination attempt, the beginnings of collapse on the Russian, British and American forces landing on the Atlantic coast. Waiting to be called up, Gunter reads All Quiet on the Western Front, found in an uncle’s bookcase. Grass assumes his uncle had no idea that Remarque’s novel was banned and burned by the Nazis. Did reading the novel have any effect on him as a teenager?
To this day the delayed effect is with me – the way one pair of boots keeps changing owners who one after the other give up the ghost.
But Grass is also reminded of ‘how little I understood as a youth and how limited an effect literature may have. A sobering thought.’
Then, in September 1944 at the age of 17, in the last months of the war, Grass – who had been trying to get into the navy as a U-boat crewman – was drafted into a new Waffen SS division. He did not choose the SS, but neither did he try to avoid it; for him, the Waffen SS was no more than a glamorous fighting force with exciting weapons. He was assigned to the Frundsberg Division, a thrown-together formation largely manned by half-trained boys and Luftwaffe ground crews that fell apart as the Red Army burst across the Oder in its final offensive.
Probing the layers of the onion, Grass asks himself sixty years later, what his younger self felt when assigned to Waffen SS:
The question is: Was I frightened by what was obvious then in the recruitment office as I am terrified now by the double S, even as I write this more than sixty years later?
The onion skin reveals little:
There is nothing carved in the onion skin that can be read as a sign of shock, let alone horror. I more likely viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up.
As for Von Frunsberg, after whom the SS division was named, he had been leader of the Swabian League in the Peasant Wars of the 16th century, someone, Grass admits, who to his younger self ‘stood for freedom, liberation’.
He confesses that, yes, as a seventeen-year-old he was a member of the SS. That, yes, along with most Germans, he happily supported Hitler. That, though he knew the Jews were being deported from Danzig, he never wondered where they were going. His greatest regret as he looks back at a complacent young man growing up in Nazi Germany is that he never asked any questions about anything. And then:
For decades I refused to admit to the word, and to the double letters. What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame.
In his defence he argues that during training, there was never any mention of the war crimes that later came to light:
But the ignorance I claim could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called to this day has not been lifted, something all too fluently called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.
What follows after these admissions is a brilliant evocation of scenes that the teenage Grass witnessed when his unit was taken to the collapsing front in Lower Silesia, passing through a burning Dresden:
Soldiers young and old, in Wermacht uniforms. Hanging from trees still bare along the road, from linden trees in the marketplaces. With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. […]
Off to the side I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong. One has a cow hitched to his plough, Crows following the plough.
Then I see more refugees, filling the streets in long processions: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; i see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs hoping to survive the war.
His first encounter with the enemy comes with a ‘Stalin Organ’ rocket attack that leaves bodies strewn everywhere. Soon he is stranded behind enemy lines, in woods with Russians close by. Twigs crack underfoot – someone is nearby; a figure approaches and, terrified, the young Grass sings a German melody which is answered in kind. Grass the memoirist can now only identify the man who appeared, the man who became his guardian angel, who led him out of the woods, over the fields and across the Russian front line, as ‘the lance corporal’. He had fought with the Polish campaign, in France and Greece, and as far afield as the Crimea.
The lance corporal is his saviour, but then, in a Soviet tank attack, the lance corporal’s legs are ripped to bits. The last sight young Gunter has of him is of him being wheeled past from a battlefield operating room, his eyes wide open, amazed and unbelieving – a legless torso.
Soon the Fuhrer is no more and Grass, having been transferred to a military hospital in Marienbad finds himself, a seventeen-year-old priapic youth, under the care of Finnish nurses. Hungry for sex, he is even more hungry for nourishment.
Finally freed from the American POW camp at Bad Aibling, a displaced person in the British Occupied Zone, Grass found his first officially-registered residence as a free man in Cologne, ‘a pile of debris with an occasional miraculously-surviving street sign stuck to what was left of a façade, or hung on a pole sticking out of the rubble, which was also sprouting lush patches of dandelions about to blossom.’ He scavenges ‘like a stray dog for food, a place to sleep, and – driven by that other hunger – skin on skin contact’.
An encounter in the station waiting-room leads him to Hanover and his first job of work after the war is over: an encounter with ‘the eternal lance-corporal in his dyed Wermacht uniform’, his wooden leg stretched out in front of him, smoking a pipe filled with ‘an indefinable substance only distantly related to tobacco’.
He looked as if he had survived not only the most recent war but also the Thirty Years’ War and Seven Years’ War: he was timeless.
The veteran suggests Hanover where there is work underground in the potash mines. There, Gunter finds work as a coupler boy, hooking up dumper wagons laden with potash to form underground trains. It is there in the mine that, for the first time by his own account, he entered the world of politics, albeit still only as a teenage observer. During breaks in the intensive work routine caused by regular power cuts, the older men would sit and argue politics – the Communists, the Nazi nostalgists, and the Social-Democrats:
Even though I had trouble making sense of the issues that infuriated them so, I realized, coupler boy and idiot on the fringe, that when push came to shove the Communists inevitably teamed up with the Nazis to shout down the Social Democrat remainder.
One Sunday morning Gunter’s locomotive driver took him into Hanover to hear the head of the Social Democratic Party, Kurt Schumacher, speak to an open-air audience of then thousand (mull over that number for a minute).
No he didn’t speak, he screamed, the way all politicians … screamed. And yet the future Social Democrat and unflinching supporter of ontheonehandandontheother took to heart some of the words that the frail figure with the empty, fluttering sleeve thundered down to his ten thousand adherents in the blazing sun.
Later, of course, Grass would be a supporter and speech-writer for Willy Brandt and his ‘policy of small steps’, and in The Diary of a Snail would prescribe ‘crawling shoes for the ills of progress. The snail’s track, not the fast track. A long road paved with cobblestones of doubt.’
Aside from politics there is the memory of a remarkable wedding celebration when one of his potash mine barrack mates, a Polack German from Upper Silesia, gets married to a wartime widow from the nearby village. After a boisterous celebration in the war widow’s one room, during which there’s an inordinate amount of drinking, the groom, the witnesses and the bride – all four of them – end the evening by tumbling into the marriage bed:
What transpired then is among so much flesh no onion skin wished or wishes to recall. The bride, perhaps, is the only one who knew, felt, or sensed what did or did not happen during the rest of the night and with whom definitely, with whom probably or definitely not, and with whom many times over.
By the time we awoke the next morning, no, it was closer to noon, the blonde newlywed had laid the table for breakfast. The room smelled of fried eggs and crisp bacon. She was smiling her blonde smile, beaming it at her husband and the two coupler boys, all three of whom were staring past one another into space, hardly speaking, and when one did, it was about the next, the late shift.
Peeling away the onion layers reveals to Grass moments of happiness, though the late 1940s and early 1950s are remembered also as years of having little and struggling to establish a place for himself in the world. And woven through his memoir are painful memories his parents and his sister. Having finally discovered that his parents and his sister survived the war, he visits them, now refugees in the western sector:
Mother had refused to see her son be packed off to Berlin and, as she believed, to his death. Now Fate had brought us back together. We embraced, compulsively, over and over. Wordlessly, or with meaningless phrases. Too much, more than could be put into words, had happened in the course of a time that had no beginning and could have no end. Some things came up later, others were too horrible for words. The repeated violence done to my mother had muted her. She was old now and ailing. Little of her liveliness and wicked tongue remained. And was that shell of a man my father? He who set such great store by dignity and self-possession.
Only my sister seemed unharmed by what had happened. She seemed almost too mature, looking up at me, her ‘big brother’, with bright, inquisitive eyes.
It was not until then that I began to see what had not been sufficiently clear during the last years of the war, in the hospital, in the POW camps, and in my desultory, ambulatory freedom, when my only concern had been myself and my dual hunger. Everything was different, everything altered by loss. No one was unscathed. Not only houses had been reduced to ruins. In hindsight the crimes coming to light with peace, the flip side of war, were making victims out of perpetrators.
The people standing before me had been expelled from their homeland as individuals, but among millions they were of mere statistical value. I embraced survivors who, as the saying went, had got off with a scare. They went on with their existence somehow, but . . .
We knew nothing about one another. ‘Our boy is back!’ my father cried out to the people getting off the bus or getting on the bus to Bergheim. But I was no longer the boy he had seen off at Danzig Central Station, when all the churches of a city built for all eternity tolled their bells in farewell.
Not once during the few years she had left did my mother ever so much as drop a hint or utter a word that might indicate what had gone on in the empty shop, in the basement, or in the apartment, nothing that might indicate where and how often she had been raped by Russian soldiers. It was not until after she died that I learned – and then only indirectly from my sister – that to protect her daughter she had offered herself to them. There were no words.
Nor could I bear to come out with things long lurking within me: the questions I had failed to ask . . . my petrified faith . . . the Hitler Youth campfires . . . my desire to die a hero’s death like Lieutenant-Commander Prien of the submarines – and as a volunteer . . . the Labour Serviceman we called Wedontdothat . . . how Fate had saved the Fiihrer . . . the Waffen SS oath of allegiance in the jangling cold: ‘If Others Prove Untrue, Yet We Shall Steadfast Be’ … And the Stalin organ and all the deaths it caused, mostly among the young and unprepared like me . . . the song I sang out of terror in the woods until an answer came . . . the lance corporal who saved me but lost both legs to a Russian grenade while I was spared . . . my belief in the final victory to the bitter end . . . the lightly wounded soldier’s feverish dreams of a girl with black plaits . . . the gnawing hunger . . . a game of dice … the disbelief at the pictures of Bergen-Belsen, at the piles of corpses – look at them, go ahead look at them, don’t turn away, just because – to put it mildly – it is beyond description …
No, I didn’t look back.
There’s something else here in these passages which relates, beyond Grass’s own silence about his youthful acceptance of the Nazi regime and his membership of the Waffen SS, to the wider silence in Germany that, for decades, surrounded the experience of Germans as victims. I remember it was touched on by Neil MacGregor in an episode of his radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, when he spoke of how the huge numbers of victims killed in the bombing of German cities, the fate of the millions of Germans (like Grass’s parents) expelled from Eastern Europe, and the sufferings experienced by German women during the Red Army advance in 1945 were, until recently, matters preferred to be forgotten, uncommemorated. MacGregor spoke of the awkward question:
When a state has done so much wrong, how are we to respond to the suffering its citizens endure as a result?
MacGregor quoted the words of Andreas Kossert, a historian of the post-war expulsions:
Now, seventy years after the end of the war, almost every family in Germany is affected by it. But it is only gradually becoming a topic of collective memory in Germany, because until very recently the issue was associated with a right-wing, revisionist position, or that was the general perception. In many families there was total silence and not a word about the loss, the mourning of parents or grandparents. But all of a sudden it’s now entering the centre of society.
Now the young man seeks to assuage the third hunger – the hunger for art:
The need to make an image for myself of everything standing still or in motion and thus of every object that throws a shadow and even of the invisible … the desire to conquer all with images was insatiable.
In Dusseldorf he becomes an art student, following an apprenticeship as a stonemason in the cemetery workshop of a master stonecutter. At this time he lives in a spartan dormitory in a local establishment run by Franciscan monks. Weekends, though, are spent in the dance joints of Dusseldorf Old Town – it was ‘a dance-crazy time’:
We, the defeated, couldn’t get enough of the twelve-bar liberation offered by our transatlantic victors. ‘Don’t Fence Me In …’
We needed to celebrate our survival and forget the chance scenes staged by war. What was shameful or horrific we left to lurk below the surface. The past, and the hills rising above its mass graves, were levelled on Saturdays and Sundays to the dance floor.
While a student of sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy, Günter joins a jazz trio, playing washboard in the Csikos, a Hungarian gypsy restaurant in the heart of Düsseldorf’s Old Town (re-imagined by Grass in the third part of The Tin Drum as the Onion Cellar where, for a fee, guests could overcome postwar society’s ‘inability to mourn’ with the aid of onions, knives and chopping boards, and cry your eyes out.
Which leads me to conclude that of all the products of the soil the onion is the best suited to literature. Whether it unwraps the memory skin by skin or moistens dried-up tear ducts and causes tears to flow, it is a valid metaphor, and as far as the Onion Cellar was concerned, it was good for business.
Are we to believe that one night they had a famous late-night visitor who, ‘shiny brass trumpet raised to his lips’ joins them in a jam session: Satchmo?
In the summer, he hitch-hikes south to Tuscany and Rome, the Uffizi, Titian and Botticelli. He sleeps in youth hostels and monasteries, under olive trees and in vineyards; meets girls from Sweden, Canada and Scotland; eats cheap pasta and bread soup with globules of fat floating in it; drinks wine from jugs proffered by nuns. Every day is a gift.
On the way home he makes a detour to visit an actress friend in her family home in Switzerland. There, with the family gathered around the table, there occurs a moment of great future significance:
The son of my friend’s sister entered the smoke-filled room with a toy drum hanging from his neck and struck the round sheet of tin with wooden sticks. Twice to the right, once to the left. Disregarding the grown-ups, he crossed the room and repeatedly circled the table, drumming his drum. He was not to be deterred by bribes of chocolate or silly distractions and seemed to be looking through everyone and everything. Then all at once he turned on his heel and retraced his steps out of the room.
It was a scene that left its mark, a picture that stayed with me. But 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.
By 1953, Grass is living Berlin, a student at the School of Fine Arts, meeting his first wife Anna, and standing at the edge of Potsdamer Platz in the middle of June watching workers in East Berlin hurl rocks at Soviet tanks. (Twelve years later he would write a play, The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising, in which a caricatured Bertolt Brecht rehearses an adaptation of Coriolanus during those June days when throwing stones at tanks could succeed only in the imagination.)
Grass writes movingly of his sister, who quickly discovers that life as a novitiate nun in a convent near Aachen is not what she thought it would be – ‘punishments for the slightest infraction of the rules, and everything was a sin’. He writes, too, of his mother, dying of cancer. He manages to rescue his sister, but his mother is beyond help. She dies in hospital in Cologne, with Gunter promising that when she is better they will both go to the beautiful south where the lemons bloom:
She, out of whom I crawled screaming one Sunday – ‘Sunday’s child, that’s what you are,’ she liked to tell me; she, whose lap I still sat in at the age of fourteen, a mamas boy who clung to his complex; she, for whom I promised, evoked, and painted riches, fame, and the south, her Promised Land; she, who taught me to collect her customers’ debts in small increments – ‘Knock on a Friday, when there’s still something left of their pay’; […] she, who refused to come to the station when I, silly boy, volunteered for the army – ‘They’re sending you to your death’; she, who said not a word when I asked her in the train from Cologne to Hamburg what had happened to her when the Russians arrived with such force – ‘Bad things should be forgotten’; she […] whose fingers played languorous piano pieces and who put books she didn’t read on the shelf for me; […] she, who believed in me, her Sunday’s child, and so always opened the Academy’s end~of-year report to the same page; she, who gave me, her darling boy, everything and received little; she, who is my vale of joy and my vale of tears and who, when I wrote before and write now, looks over my shoulder even after death and says ‘Cross that out; it’s ugly’, but I rarely listened to her and when I did it was too late; she, who was born in pain and died in pain, set me free to write and write; she, whom I would so like to kiss awake on paper still-white, so she could travel with me, only me, and see beauty, only beauty, and finally say, ‘That I should live to see such beauty …’; she, my mother, died on January 24, 1954.
Though I did not weep until later. Much later.
From his childhood days, we learn, Grass the writer was first and foremost a poet, scribbling down poems even in the days of war, and continuing to write verse after the war is over. We learn that he has always typed on an Olivetti typewriter, standing at a lectern-style desk. It is as a poet that is qualities as a writer are first recognised, and it is to the members of Group 47, a Berlin poets’ circle, that to great acclaim he first reads chapters of The Tin Drum.
The memoir closes with Grass’s first marriage, and with him writing and completing The Tin Drum:
The time has come to close the drawers, turn the pictures to the wall, erase the tapes, and bury the snapshots, in which one after the other I look older and older. The junk room full of archived manuscripts and accumulated prizes must be sealed. Everything left over after word making, the unused grist, the dust-laden glory, the obsolescent disputes must be removed from view, so as to focus, with memory now unburdened, on the young man who around the year 1955, wearing a beret, then a cap, is trying to form a first sentence out of as few words as possible.
Overcome any distaste you may feel about its controversial revelation, and what you will discover here is a beautiful book: poetic, heartfelt and possibly unreliable in parts (as the memory can be), but offering a vivid account of the circumstances that turned Gunter Grass from an obedient SS soldier into one of the great German of the last half-century. He achieves this by doing what he has always done, beginning with The Tin Drum: pulling back the covers to reveal what lies hidden in the dark of forgetfulness (whether willed or not). He does it in a voice that is alternately uproarious, grieving, salacious, sacrilegious, haunted, and finally, unforgettable.
And from then on I lived from page to page and between book and book, my inner world still rich in characters. But to tell all of that, I have neither the onions, nor the desire.
Grass decorates the each chapter with a drawing of an onion being progressively peeled. In the last drawing, the onion has been fully stripped down, and is just a pile of scattered layers, revealing an emptiness at its heart. Is Grass telling us something?
- Peer Review: Onion Skins and Grass Cuttings: Joanna Scutts’ review of the reviews
- The Road from Danzig: Timothy Garton-Ash’s NYRB review, 2007
- Now I remember, now I forget: Michael Hoffman’s Guardian review, 2007
- Even Now: Neal Ascherson’s LRB review (subscription only)
- Günter Grass obituary: Guardian
- Farewell to Germany’s Towering Literary Figure: Der Spiegel obituary
- Günter Grass: a life in pictures (Guardian)
- Günter Grass: the man who broke the silence: authors respond to his death
- Günter Grass personified Germany’s difficult relationship with its Nazi past: excellent article by Hans Kundnani (Guardian)
3 thoughts on “Peeling the Onion: Gunter Grass has the last word”
When I was a graduate student in English Literature, we discussed the Ibsen play Peer Gynt which features the concept of the elusive self and the onion concept – it’s a major motif in the play. So interesting…
Isn’t that the play that lasts some five hours? I’ve never seen it, nor noticed it being performed around here in my lifetime. Did Grass get the idea for his metaphor there?
Thanks for writing this thoughtful and insightful review. I’m not familiar with Gunter Grass but am adding his memoir to my list of books to read.