Friday, July 06, 2007

Crabwalk: Günter Grass

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the German literary critic (my post about his autobiography here), says that Gunter Grass's novel Crabwalk moved him to tears. That was a big enough recommendation for me. Because, first of all he is a Polish jew and a Holocaust survivor and the the subject matter of the book was the German victims of the war, a subject often exploited by the neo-nationalists in Germany. Also, Reich-Ranicki himself is no fan of Grass. A few years earlier he appeared on the cover of a German magazine tearing (literally) Too Far Afield, an earlier novel by Grass, in which he denounced German reunification by comparing it to Anschluss, Hitler's annexation of Austria. (Ranicki in the autobiography clarifies that the picture was actually a collage and that he was not happy about it.) Given all this I was actually quite disappointed with the book, which is not saying that it is not interesting or is bad. I was just expecting it to be something else.

The book is a part history lesson and a part meditation on how memory, both personal and collective, shapes politics. It sounds like a theoretical and a remote question but for the Germans, who can't take their national identity for granted, it is also an important personal question. The plot revolves around the sinking of a German ship named Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine towards the end of the second world war. More than ten thousand German civilians -- mostly women and children fleeing the advancing Red army died, which also makes it the worst maritime disaster ever. In the book we get to know about the origin of the ship, the biography of the eponymous figure who was the head of the Swiss Nazi party, a Jew named David Frankfurter who murdered him in Davos much before the war and the Russian naval commander Marinescu who was in charge of the submarine whose torpedo sank the ship. It is no straight-forward history lesson though. The structure of the book is very intricate and it is framed very interestingly. The narrator of the book, a middle aged journalist, was actually born on the rescue boat. He is reluctantly telling the story after being egged on by his mother and "the old man", who is none other than Grass himself. In his search for materials for his story he also comes an internet website and chatroom run by a neo-nationalist German, who it turns is none other than his estranged son. Much of the book is about the arguments in the chatroom that the narrator follows and then reports with his comments.

The part of the book dealing with the sinking of the ship and the histories of the all the figures involved didn't leave much of an impression on me. What I found most impressive was how alert Grass is to the political implications of German history which acknowledges German victims. A few years ago W. G. Sebald's essay collection On the Natural History of Destruction attracted a lot of guarded and sometimes hostile criticism because some critics felt that he was putting the German victims and the victims of Germans, and by implication German war crimes and the War Crimes of the Allies (the firebombing of Dresden), in the same category. Of course there is a technical similarity but talking about both of them can only lead to moral and political confusion. There can be no equivalence there, and any attempt to do so can only appear dishonest. Nobody can doubt Sebald's intentions, which were nothing but his solidarity with the victims of history, the dead and the forgotten ("to whom the greatest injustice was done" as he says) that he shows in all his books. But not every writer can aspire to be of the stature of W. G. Sebald.

Grass is deeply aware of all these political and moral issues inherent in the German history. He clearly sees the dangers of both forgetting and remembering. If you forget you are doing an injustice to the dead, and remembrance on the other hand can potentially revitalize the monsters of nationalism and extremism as he shows in the book through the participants in the chatroom. It was in this context that I found this review by Ruth Franklin somewhat strange:

Considering that Grass has already written so profoundly about the effects of the war, why did he pay any heed to this simplifying and demagogic call to decontextualize German suffering? It is obvious from his earlier work that he once knew how distorting such a reevaluation is: the Danzig trilogy owes its great power not least to his determination to provide a full, even epic picture of the war years. And coming from Grass, Crabwalk's pandering to the politics and the intellectual fashions of the season is worse than disappointing. For not only does it result in a novel stocked with wooden characters and ludicrous dialogue, it also is evidence of Grass's failure to take the lead in exposing the wrongheadedness of the current debate. He, of all people, should have pointed out that the question of whether German suffering should be given priority in the understanding of World War II is fundamentally misguided. For it is a question he had already answered.
I think he is doing no such thing in the book. He is more alive to political realities and its nuances than she claims. If only, most of the criticism I have come across of him is about how he always goes too much overboard on the other side -- too much moral browbeating and self-mortification about German guilt and responsibility. Still the review is a good overview of the politics behind the topic. Also this review by John Updike in the New Yorker. Mostly plot overview but interesting.

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