"Too Far Afield," by Gunter Grass. Harcourt. 658 pages. $30.
The Nobel Prize awarded last year to Gunter Grass seems one of the better literary decisions of those Swedish Academicians. From "The Tin Drum" on, his novels have been meditations on his native Germany, cast in a mode somewhere between symbolism and allegory. Like Germany itself, he prefers other things to realism.
Grass always takes an idea and spreads a generous amount of prose on it. This time it's German reunification -- a topic on which he surely should be worth reading. And for a while he is, from the fall of the Wall through the exchange of currency. We vividly revisit Berlin's history and geography; watch the "wallpeckers" dismantle the Wall; eat at that "approximately Scottish" innovation, a McDonald's; visit the ducks and the monuments at the Tiergarten; exchange East German marks for real western money. And the translation is brilliant. But these etched moments only get us a quarter of the way through this long-winded novel.
The story is simple enough: from the early days of the Third Reich to the present, Theo Wuttke, nicknamed "Fonty," has been tailed, protected, harassed and nursed by political agent Ludwig Hoftaller. Throughout, their home base has been an enormous building in East Berlin, built by Hitler as his Aviation Ministry, taken over as headquarters of the Communist regime after the war, revamped as the "Handover Trust" that deconstructs East Germany after reunification. The building, a kind of history of Germany, has a huge odd elevator like fortune's wheel, ceaselessly moving so that people have to hop on and off at the right time or wait for another go-round.
Now that the Wall is down, old Fonty twice tries to escape Berlin and old Hoftaller twice heads him off, blackmailing him into staying by threatening to reveal documents from his past. (It is implied that this is also the reason West Germany must continue to support East Germany.) Part Stasi and part Mephistopheles, Hoftaller is the only fantastic part of the novel, yet not all that fantastic. Indeed, the Berlin setting, the slowly built-up characterization, the elaborate tropes are not far from the later works of John Le Carre.
But Fonty's main characteristic, his obsession with the German novelist and critic Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), makes him a one-trick pony. His friends and relatives, and of course the unobtrusive narrator from the Fontane archive in Potsdam (which really exists), all ceaselessly use this point of reference as well.
A few years ago, Peter Gay asked, "Who reads the novels of Theodor Fontane today, in English?" Yes, Fontane wrote primarily about Berlin and the Mark Brandenburg, but however relevant his observations on Bismarck and the first unification of Germany have again become, the endless references to them grow exceedingly tiresome.
The title, incidentally, is a phrase oft repeated by one of Fontane's characters, who used it as an excuse to avoid facing unpleasant facts (as, by implication, Germans usually do). The unpleasant facts here are that nothing much happens in the novel's later portions, and that what passes for a final climax, Fonty's sudden attack on his idol's novels, seems doomed to amuse only Grass and his wife, Ute.
Charles Nicol, professor of English and humanities at Indiana State University, is currently writing a novel, "Mercy Short."