17th April 2015: Günter Wilhelm Grass passed away last Monday, on 13th April after a transient hospitalization. The immediate cause of his death is not known. But in a letter he wrote 3 weeks ago to American novelist and screen writer John Irving, Grass had said that his age was giving him a hard time and his heart and lungs were “paying him back” for what he did to them – “smoking with assiduity.”
We live in an age of sketchy and deceptive world where predators and zombies stalk. Sadly though, this has gotten to become the order of the day. Yet, in spite of the conceited disquiet in some literary minds, in the better part of the fictional world there is more legitimacy than fantasy. Whereas, Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi were non-existent in the real world, the case of the free city of Danzig (under League of Nations then, Gdansk in Poland now) of Günter Grass was not so. But all these writers of our time used imagination to supplement reality, not to break away from it.
The Tin Drum is fifty five and half years old now, and despite its immense and continuing popularity, its technique — magic realism — has largely given way, in Europe, to other forms of narration. Francis Ford Cappola had said about his 1979 film Apocalypse Now that it was not about Vietnam, but Vietnam. Grass’ novel The Tin Drum was not about twentieth century, but twentieth century. The Tin Drum has been regarded as a modern classic almost since the moment it was published. On Grass’ 65th birthday, Russian-German writer Lev Kopelev wrote, “Günter Grass’ books present surprising and extremely contradictory combinations of opposites. Minutely detailed presentations of real things and scientifically precise descriptions of historical events are melted together with fairy tales, legends, myths, fables, poems and wild fantasies to produce his own special poetical world.” No writer from Germany has had a comparable impact in the last half-century. No writer from Germany since Goethe was so widely read as Grass.
Despite gaining wide acceptance, Magic Realism is a mostly misunderstood writing style. The trouble with the technique is that people only hear half of it (magic) without paying attention to the other half (realism). But if the writing style contained purely magic, then nobody would take it seriously. However, the magic in magic realism is rooted in the real. As a matter of fact, the technique grows out of the real and highlights it in alluring and fortuitous ways, that stays like a lead weight in the readers’ subconscious.
Grass wrote The Tin Drum during the late 1950s living in a basement apartment in Paris. In what later came to be known as the Danzig Triology, Grass next came up with the Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). The former was a novella that revolved around a protagonist with a bizarrely large Adam’s apple that set him apart from the rest of mankind. The Dog Years examined three decades of the German history with an end note of frustration, which Grass perhaps had intended to be his magnum opus. His other books include From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Flounder (1977), The Meeting at Telgate (1979), Headbirths or The Germans are Dying Out (1980), The Rat (1986), and Show Your Tongue (1989). In 1999, handing him the Nobel Prize for “portraying the forgotten face of history in brisk black fables”, the Swedish Academy said “The Tin Drum will forever remain one of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century”.
Grass had trained himself as a stoneman and studied graphics and sculpture before he took to
writing. He always designed his own book jackets. His books often contained illustrations by himself. In an interview with the quarterly magazine Paris Review Grass said, “For me, there is a very clear give-and-take relationship between art and writing. Sometimes this relationship is stronger, other times weaker. In the last few years it has been very strong. Show Your Tongue, which takes place in Calcutta, is an example of this. I could never have brought that book into existence without drawing. The incredible poverty in Calcutta constantly draws the visitor into situations where language is stifled—you cannot find words. Drawing helped me to find words again while I was there.”
Elsewhere in the same interview he said, “Ours was a lower-middle-class family; we had a small, two-room apartment. My sister and I did not have our own rooms, or even a place to ourselves. In the living room, beyond the two windows, was a little corner where my books were kept, and other things—my watercolors and so on. Often I had to imagine the things I needed. I learned very early to read amidst noise. And so I started writing and drawing at an early age. Another result is that I now collect rooms. I have a study in four different places. I’m afraid to return again to the situation of my youth, with only a corner in one small room. . . . As a child I was a great liar. Fortunately my mother liked my lies. . . . I started to write down my lies very early. And I continue to do so! I started a novel when I was twelve years old. It was about the Kashubians, who turned up many years later in The Tin Drum, where Oskar’s grandmother, Anna, (like my own) is Kashubian. But I made a mistake in writing my first novel: all the characters I had introduced were dead at the end of the first chapter. I couldn’t go on! This was my first lesson in writing: be careful with your characters.”
He was a longtime supporter of the Social Democratic Party and has been known to write speeches for Willy Brandt for almost ten years, before relinquishing his association with the party and the Berlin Academy of Arts, as an expression of resentment against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Germany.
The food one favors tells a lot about the individual. Grass loved home cooked ordinary peasant food like, smoked goose breast with sauerkraut and caraway seeds. In 2006, days before his memoirs Peeling the Onion was due for release, in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Grass sought redemption by confessing that he had been a member of the elite Nazi Waffen-SS. “It was a weight on me”, said Grass, “My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out in the end.”
He had also equated the 2005 Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (Peace Bu Upon Him) to Nazi caricatures of Jews. In opposing the first Persian Gulf war, he expressed his anger toward his own country, accusing German arms manufacturers of supplying weapons to the then Baath party regime in Iraq.
In 2012, his controversial poem What Must be Said came out, reproving Israel’s nuclear drive and hostility toward Iran. In the poem he said, he had kept silent on the issue for fear of labeled anti-Semitic.
At the end of 2013 he became one of the 562 signatories of Writers Against Mass Surveillance calling on people to protest against the surveillance practices of US intelligence services.
A thread of dance and music ran through both of Grass’ two marriages. His first, with Swiss dancer, Anna Margareta Schwarz, ended in divorce in 1978. His second marriage was with Ute Grunert, an organist. While he had four children with Anna, he also became a step father to two sons with Ute. Ute also gave him two daughters.
Those locks of black hair falling across the forehead, the drooping walrus mustache and the bifocals slipping halfway down the nose, all have now gone down to the loom as yarns that weave our memory fabric. Let us savor the moment by being grateful when words written by one man achieves what the moon should do and move the tides.
(Günter Wilhelm Grass, 1999 Nobel laureate for Literature, Born: 16 October 1927, Died: 13 April 2015; Most significant works – The Danzig Trilogy: The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.)