The death of Günter Grass on Monday, April 13, a giant German writer of the post-World-War-II era, a novelist, playwright, poet, fine draftsman and a sculptor, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1999, has eclipsed an enormous creative force of modern-day German world of letters which has been equally venerable as it is universal. Throughout his literary journey, Grass tried to uphold a socio-political and cultural vigor he had fostered amongst the tribe of the writers to act as an ongoing check on the current political affairs. As such, he was often referred to as the moral conscience keeper of his country. He developed an early insight into the fact that writers usually tend to harp on endeavors that serve best their individual interests and motives, encapsulated, at the most, in the niches confined to their personal agendas. Hence, far from taking their rightful place in the socio-political arena, they often end up selling themselves and their voice for a price.
As a liberal public intellectual with Leftist (though not communist) leanings, Grass had an unabated faith in the multiple realities of life which seems to have had an almost obligatory theme thrust upon his writings – the Third Reich and its legacies. He helped to shape the German postwar history – literary, political and personal – as no one else did, and turned to writing from arts in the hope of a better understanding of “ourselves, our time and our actions” by engaging himself with the meaning of our experiences and deeds, both political as well as personal. The central message of his writings, especially of the Danziger Trilogy: The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, as his entire engaged life too prompts one to recall George Santayana’s words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”‘
Caught between the opposites
Born on October 16, 1927 in the Free City of Danzig, then East-Prussia, and now in Poland, Günter Grass attended the elementary school and later high school there. He later wrote in a poem called Kleckerburg: “And I grew up between / the Holy Spirit and Hitler’s Image”. It was his childhood dream to become an artist. The treasure of books his mother had and her passion for music and theatre supported, in addition, by his teachers gave an impressive kick-off to this vocation, while his father could only play rejection. Decades later Grass wrote: “When I was fifteen, I wanted to murder my father in thoughts, words and works with my Hitler Youth Dagger.”
The Second World War broke into the life of the young boy with all the vehemence and violence and provided him with experiences, which would determine the largest part of Grass’ later works. Just at15 years of tender age, he fled his family’s tight grip and joined the German Navy as a volunteer, only to be later sent to the Waffen-SS.
As one of those “who were spared by the capricious war and who became aware of the randomness of their existence,” Grass was now confronted with a future full of question marks, just as his entire generation too was “thrown from 1945 to the wild tracks of life,” as he once called it. Grass refused to lead a middle-class, secured life, which was recommended by his “unloved” father. Instead, he went on to lead “a reality-contemptuous, against all odds penetratingly decided realization of his childhood desire to become an artist,” wrote his biographer, Volker Neuhaus, in Günter Grass – writer, artist, and contemporary.
After apprenticeship as a stone mason, Grass studied sculpture and graphics from 1948-1956 at the Academy of Arts, Düsseldorf. In 1953, he moved to the University of Fine Arts “in the more complicated Berlin”, where in the mid-1950s Grass debuted as a poet and playwright. After initial attempts as a writer, he became a member of the prestigious “Group47”. From 1957 to 1959 he lived with his first wife Anna in Paris, where his first great novel, The Tin Drum was completed. The pursuit to be a sculptor was abandoned until further notice which he engaged with only in later years, when he was back with the visual arts. However, he designed the covers of his books himself and illustrated many of them.
Prone to controversies
As an intellectual, Grass never shied away from controversies, though he never looked for one. They appeared rather as the by-products of his public engagement. For example, though the Swedish Academy, while awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, praised him for his espousal of “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them,” and called The Tin Drum “one of the enduring literary works of the 20th century,” a few years later the author of this masterpiece itself became controversial when he revealed in his autobiography Peeling the Onion, in 2006 that for almost a year or so he had had to join as a young man of 17 a unit of Hitler’s Army called Waffen SS, known for its inhuman acts and horrific crimes, both at home and abroad. Though he insisted that he was only engaged in doing relatively innocent jobs in the Army, but the revelation itself came as a shock and brought him a battery of accusations of hypocrisy. “It was a weight on me,” Grass had later stated. “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”
He was not the only one of his generation to be secretive of his wartime past, but being a pre-eminent public intellectual who had laid open the wounds the German history had both suffered from and inflicted on others, he became the object of mockery beyond the borders of Germany. But there were equal number of voices engaged in his defense as were engaged in his derision. Hardly anyone holds the Nazi seduction of the youngster for a problem, but what is held against him is rather the long silence to come out with it.
Nevertheless, he seems to have required a whole lifetime to counter and put to death this immature shame he had put on himself at an adolescent age, which, however, he revealed only in the later years of his life. It must have had a cumulative effect on his artistic soul and hence in itself an incitement enough to turn himself into a cleanser of his soul, since he remained the moral voice of his country throughout his life.
Grass has been vocal about the social misery and maladies of sorts prevalent in all societies. Not only himself, but he had rather wanted every writer to intervene and get involved in the day- to- day decisions made by the regimes. In his Nobel speech in 1999, he highlighted why books and their authors become so dangerous in the eyes of the powerful. He stated that “the evidence provided by literary works often proves that the truth exists only in the plural, just as there does not exist a single reality, but indeed a multitude of realities”. In one of his poems thematizing Grass on Grass, he states:
“I want to be buried with a bag full of nuts and with the renewed teeth.
If it then crackles, where I lie, can be assumed: It is him, still very much him.”
My association with him too was a result of this engagement which began in 1987, when as Vice-President of Berlin Writers Association (NGL) I co-operated with him to get some incarcerated Turkish writers released in that country. This engagement evolved into my becoming active in the Writers-in-Prison Committee of the PEN.
Later, I followed his call to support the former East-German PEN when the reunification process of both the PEN Clubs ran into difficulties as some West German members objected to the inclusion of some East German Members suspected of espionage for the Stasi, the much-hated State Security agency. Ultimately, his moral instance of not excluding anyone won the upper hand and the German PEN was at last reunited. By this time Grass had donated his historical residence to the German Academy of Arts and Literatures, where the writers of repute were to be given three months’ residencies to complete their ongoing literary works. I was lucky to have been given this residency twice within a span of three years.
Whatever his urge to intervene came up with was almost always polemical, and hence controversial, often undiplomatic but straightforward, though not always on the basis of facts, but always heard and commented upon by intellectual circles and media.
In his more than three decades of association with Kolkata, Grass visited the city thrice and was overwhelmed by its cultural richness. At least on two occasions he stayed longer in the town, the longest in 1986 which invoked both his fascination for as well as his aversion to the existing realities there. Whereas the earlier sojourn had produced a chapter in a book called The Flounder, the later sojourn produced a full-length book in 1988 called Show your Tongue. In this book, written impressionistically in the form of a dairy, Grass’ more than thirty-years-old association with Kolkata had multiple shades conspicuous in the depiction of the “omnipresent stench”, city’s culture of hero worship, and of a philanthropic reach out to its marginalized people like the rag pickers. Both the content as well as the tone of the Show your Tongue invoked criticism from both intellectuals as well as the politicians. But Grass never meant to insult anyone; he only wanted to prompt the authorities to do more than just talk.
Until shortly before his death, Grass was deeply worried about the future of humanity. “We are heading for the third great war,” the Nobel Laureate said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, which was recorded on March 21 in Lübeck and published for the first time on Tuesday, the day after his death.
“There is war everywhere. We are in danger of making the same mistakes as before. Without realizing it, as if we were sleepwalkers, we can go to a new world war,” he had warned.
In addition to the many political conflicts the world is facing today, Grass had complained in the interview against the prevalent “social misery all over the world”, as also against the problems of overpopulation and climate change.” The consequences are completely ignored…, there is one meeting after another between the leaders and experts, but the problem remains: Nothing is done,” he had complained.
The author of novels such as Dog Years, Cat and Mouse, Local Anaesthetic, The Rat, The Call of the Toad, Too Far A field, Crabwalk and The Box, his latest novel as well as of My Century and Two States – One Nation? can now rest in peace leaving the onus of engagement with moral and political issues on his many successors.
The writer was Poet-Laureate in Germany between 1997- 2008 and has published 14 anthologies of poetry.
- The central message of the writings of Gunter Grass, especially of the Danziger Trilogy: The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, was to caution the humanity against the political misadventures that kill the conscience of an entire generation.
- He remained candid about his beliefs to the extent of being blunt and hurtful.
- Considered to be the voice of conscience of his times, he did not hesitate from writing in his autobiography Peeling the Onion, in 2006 that for almost a year he had had to join as a young man of 17 a unit of Hitler’s Army called Waffen SS, known for its inhuman acts and horrific crimes, both at home and abroad.
- His book on Kolkata, Show your Tongue invoked criticism from both intellectuals as well as the politicians. He remained engaged in charity work for the street children of Kolkata till his death.