Gunter Grass' 'Crabwalk': information, unfiltered

March 30, 2003|By CRAIG EISENDRATH | CRAIG EISENDRATH,Special to the Sun

Crabwalk, by Gunter Grass. Harcourt. 240 pages. $25.

Information is the ultimate waste product of our age. Gunter Grass' new novel, Crabwalk, deliberately clutters up its pages with masses of irrelevant detail, as it traces the quest by the son of a woman who survived the torpedoing of a German ship during World War II, to reconstruct the event. But in this ultimate postmodernist novel, the narrator lacks definition, and, like the reader of this book, seems buried in the information he is collecting.

Crabwalk, which means scuttling backward to move forward, is Grass' metaphor for the process of reconstructing the past, and for how the past then projects us into the future. The sunken ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was named after a Nazi official gunned down by an anti- fascist assassin in Switzerland. A survivor of its sinking, in which over 9,000 women, children and wounded soldiers perished, gives birth to the narrator, who eventually becomes a mediocre journalist.

His son in turn, deprived of his father by divorce and indifference, becomes an Internet freak, and begins trying, like his father, to put the pieces of the family story together. The son also a neo-Nazi, eventually engages another young man, who purports to be Jewish, in a chat-room debate about the facts, motives, and politics of the assassination of the Nazi and the sinking of the ship which bears his name. When the two youths meet, the son cold-bloodedly shoots his anti-Nazi rival, repeating the act of assassination.

Despite some vivid portraits and graphic reconstructions of events, the book is so riddled with undigested information that it makes hard reading. The Nobel laureate Grass, who clearly can write better, deliberately hobbles himself here, in an attempt to mimic the information age. His construction is disjunctive and confusing, exactly as if one were trying to reconstruct events from scattered information on the net.

Back in the 1920s, the American journalistic critic Walter Lippmann predicted the kind of information glut which presently characterizes our age. Recognizing the impossibility of gathering and filtering all the information necessary to be informed, he suggests carefully choosing and then relying upon "information elites." By pointedly or perversely refusing to act in this role, Grass points up how badly we need such filters, both as journalists and novelists.

Crabwalk, however, is redeemed by a brilliant description of the ship's sinking, and by the author's attempt in the last 50 or so pages to rescue the novel from its clutter. His point, that the cycle of hatred and assassinations will go on, even to a biblical third or fourth generation, is completely convincing. The book also contains vivid insights into the postwar history and politics of Germany, not into its super-stars like Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt, but into the mindset of the common people who will shape its future. The prospect is not encouraging.

Craig Eisendrath is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. His Crisis Game: A Novel of the Cold War (Sunstone) appeared last year, and his At War with Time: Western Thought from the Sages to the 21st Century (Allworth) will be published this October.

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