Gunter Grass' 'My Century': 100 years of loneness

On Books

November 28, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

I have never been much of a fan of Gunter Grass. When he got the Nobel Prize this year my reaction was weariness: one more demonstration of the almost total politicization of the Nobel literature award. Grass was selected, I believe, for his radical activism, not for his literary accomplishments.

Still, Grass is a figure to reckon with -- an innovative novelist as well as a political force in modern Germany. Now comes his latest work, "My Century," translated by Michael Henry Heim (Harcourt Brace, 280 pages, $25), a fast-paced, genuinely interesting fictional appreciation of the last 100 years.

The book begins in 1900 with the Boxer Rebellion. A young soldier rather detachedly watches Japanese lopping off the heads of young Chinese soldiers while he and his fellow Germans, plus English and other allies, quietly stand around in Peking's Tien Men Gate Square. Throughout the book, there are such echoes of timelessness. It ends in the ominous shadows of a new wave of small wars.

Each year is given a little story, none more than about four pages, none shorter than two. They are told by more-or-less anonymous narrators, enormously varied -- women, men, old, young, soldiers, athletes, bureaucrats, cops, artists, students, mothers, rich, poor, brilliant, simple. Finally, at the very end, a 103-year-old woman looks back over the whole century.

Some bits are vignettes, some little gems completely cut and polished, dramatic little tiny short stories. Many of the pieces read like breezy notes to family or close friends. Many are little sketches. Others are dialogues suspended in space or time, hanging on the pure and simple fact of a year.

Most are presented as spoken or written in the year they represent. Some hark back retrospectively, even across a generation. Almost all are personal, set apart from momentous events, the voices presented as genuine, or anyway guileless: The 1915 entry -- the second, brutal year of WWI -- is an intellectual chat between an antiwar novelist and a writer who celebrates war; 1968, the most violent post-WWII year, is presented as a pedantic, convoluted debate in a book fair seminar.

This is no history book. It makes no effort to chronicle the 20th century, or even the major turning points. It would be considerably difficult to read the narrative without a broad general idea of the history of the century.

Each narrator speaks of an intensely lone and human experience. This is not a sweeping attempt to address directly the big issues. It speaks, rather, to what it was like to be alive.

It is a narrative of German subjective experience -- flights of observation, of resentment, of fancy, of celebration of life and of quiet anger toward misery.

Speaking, in a way, for the entire book, the entry for 1928 is in the voice of a very old woman who is writing her thoughts presumably in 1999. Here, she is looking back, 71 years earlier. She begins: "You can read every word of it. I wrote it up for my great-grandchildren. For when they've grown up. Nobody'd believe what went on here in Barmbeck and everywhere. It reads like a story, I know, but it's my life." Then there is an intricate little account including the fact that she had three sons, all dead -- one a Nazi, one a Communist and one a policeman, who was a Social Democrat. And the entry ends: "The children -- they're the ones I put this all down for, painful as it was. Putting it on paper, I mean. Everything that happened. But you can read it too."

In the entries for the last 10 or 15 years, the book takes the shape of a more personal tale. Grass finally leaves the century looking forward with hope but a great deal of skepticism, putting his faith in lone and personal experience. From beginning to end, there is a theme of the horror of war, presented from the vantage points of more-or-less hopeless victims.

The American edition of "My Century" lists 21 other books by Grass. He has been enormously prolific. His most noted single book is his first, the novel "The Tin Drum," published in 1959 when Grass was 32. It is often grouped as the "Danzig Trilogy" with his 1963 novella "Cat and Mouse" and his "Dog Years," published immediately after "The Tin Drum."

"The Tin Drum," is replete with fantastical material, told through the mendacious voice of a monstrous and perverse growth-arrested grotesque who observes and recounts the horrors of the Nazi era and its aftermath.

My difficulty with Grass is that he has always seemed to me more politician than artist, more a polemicist than a provocateur. Characteristically, I believe, in "The Tin Drum" he attributes the core evils of the Nazi era to a satanic force that has captured the souls of the German people. Famously, Grass wrote of that force, as "the heavenly gas man with the gas meter under his arm, that always goes ticktock."

This is Hitler -- a view of Hitler that, in effect, exonerates everybody but him as being innocently, or at least passively, brought under the control of a magical force.

Grass' postwar political positions, which intrude on most of his writing, include the core contention that an evil United States was entirely morally responsible for the Cold War and that the Soviet role, including its domination by arms of Eastern Europe, was simply a prudent precaution against American imperialism. The rest of his political positions follow this sort of naivete about socialism and demonization of all things not German, especially including America.

In "My Century," Grass plays his politics very lightly, which adds strength to -- or diminishes weakness from-- the work. Its theme is the struggle of the individual, characteristically alone, to achieve or maintain integrity or dignity in the face of the grossness and venality of the world. There is great truth in that, truth that trancends politics and polemics. It brings the book closer to literary merit than Grass has generally been before.

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