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Reviewed by Joel Agee
Sunday, July 8, 2007

PEELING THE ONION

By Günter Grass

Translated by Michael Henry Heim

Harcourt. 425 pp. $26

No author has done more than Günter Grass to impress upon Germans of his generation the moral necessity of remembering the 12-year nightmare of Nazi rule without subterfuge or evasion. In novels, plays, articles and speeches, he has labored at digging up the "mountains of rubble and cadavers" that many Germans were all too willing to bury. When Ronald Reagan laid a wreath at Bitburg cemetery in 1985, honoring the memory of 49 Waffen-SS soldiers among the 2,000 Wehrmacht troops laid to rest there -- compounding his blunder by insisting that these German war dead were "victims of Nazism also" -- Grass issued a furious and eloquent protest. His receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1999 conferred apostolic dignity on him as his nation's conscience in matters of historical memory.

That is the background for the dismay and indignation that met his announcement, through a newspaper interview last year, that at the age of 17 he had not, as he had always maintained, been called up as a low-level anti-aircraft auxiliary but instead as a soldier in the Waffen-SS, an infamous combat group. It was shame, he said, that had kept him silent all those years -- shame and the search for the proper form and the right moment in which to make his confession. That moment has come, and the form is a memoir. Its title, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel-- Peeling the Onion-- suggests an effort at intimate self-disclosure, and perhaps -- because its author is Günter Grass -- an unpeeling of layers of collective amnesia.

But Grass's onion is a different kind of vegetable. Its leaves are not concentric. They unfold as memoirs generally do, laterally from one phase of life to the next, while sending out tendrils of reference to scenes and characters from his books. Young "Ginterchen's" sojourn in the SS is just one of many episodes, and not the most interesting, certainly not the most revealing one. But for just that reason, it merits closer examination.

Grass mentions SS officers who passed on their experience "in bitter earnest or with merciless wit." What were those experiences, one wonders, and what was their amusement about? What sort of men were these "proud bearers of close-combat and frozen-flesh medals," their relics of the winter campaign in Russia? Did basic training in the Waffen-SS not include ideological drilling? Was there not at least an esprit de corps that would distinguish them from common soldiers, and would there not have been an effort to mold the young recruits in that spirit? Grass's unit had the unique assignment of rescuing Hitler from his bunker. Did it feel like an honor to be charged with such a mission? Was it ever suggested to Grass and his cohorts that they were the elect of the master race? Is there really no memory that would answer these questions, or even just ask them, instead of leaving them to the reader?

Grass himself is acutely aware of this problem, and addresses it with a series of metaphors so labored that one is embarrassed by the discomfort they betray. There are "chinks" and "gaps" among the onion leaves, he writes. Then the sharp juice produces metaphorical tears that obstruct his vision. Frustrated, he reaches for another mnemonic device, a piece of amber enclosing an insect and uses it like a crystal ball to bring up oddly inconsequential details, which he then queries with the scrupulosity of a fact-checker: He stands at a garden gate "at dawn -- or was it dusk?" "Was it really only two days later?" He remembers clearly that he never fired a shot -- one can't help being reminded of the man who didn't inhale -- but he does not recall the pride, the arrogance, the cruelty that his creed bred in those who embraced it. Something unsaid haunts these pages.

Not for a moment in reading Grass's account does one get an intimate sense of what it was like to be the passionate Nazi that he admits to have been. He reports behavior that he now finds deplorable -- such as failing to ask, as a 12-year-old, why his family would no longer talk about a beloved relative who had been executed -- but these observations come from a strange distance, as if he were speaking of someone other than himself. Instead of describing the family values that must have recommended such compliance, he judges his younger self sternly: He should have asked questions; his silence was a disgrace. What reader will not come to the boy's defense? He was only a child! Thus, for all the older man's talk of guilt and shame, and partly because of it, the image one gets of the juvenile Nazi is that of a hapless Everyman prodded by an Oedipus complex, avid for honor and adventure and wholly unconscious of the evil to which he is being conscripted.

Such a character cannot, of course, deliver much in the way of moral intelligence. He is at best fit for picaresque adventures, and Grass does supply them with two gripping escape stories. At the end of one, the young Waffen-SS man swaps his uniform jacket "for one less onerous." And here Grass holds out a teaser: "Did I do so of my own accord?" Of course not. That would mean that young Grass knew more about the SS and its reputation than the elder Grass has led us to believe. The hero's innocence remains intact. A canny sidekick he met in the woods delivers the warning:

"Listen, boy, if those Ivans nab us, you're in for it. They see those ornaments on your collar, they'll shoot you in the neck. No questions asked."

It was probably Grass's good fortune that he wasn't captured by the "Ivans." But life in an American POW camp was not easy. For several months, the prisoners were kept on a diet of 850 calories a day. Not surprisingly, Grass found little to like about his well-fed captors. What does surprise is a weird anecdote about an encounter he had, while still a POW, with some young Eastern European Jews, recently freed from various concentration camps (presumably by Americans), who were hoping to be transported to Palestine some day. The Jews call the Germans Nazis, and the Germans refuse to believe what the Jews tell them about their experience. Then the mood shifts; the young men talk about their hunger for women. Fraternal feelings develop, from which the Americans with their silly pinups are excluded. And finally Germans and Jews bond in heartfelt disapproval of white Americans' racist treatment of their black compatriots. It is hard to say what is more offensive about this story: the insult of being asked to believe it, or the grotesque equations and substitutions it proposes.

No sooner does the elder Grass leave the war behind him than his onion begins to peel more readily. The book now breathes freely, as if with relief, and relaxes into something like a bildungsroman, describing its hero's development from a black-market huckster to a visual artist and a budding writer of genius. In Hanover, he finds work in a potash mine. During the frequent power outages, the workers discuss politics. The disillusioned fascist finds himself repelled by communists and die-hard Nazis alike and feels sympathy for the social-democratic ideal.

In Düsseldorf, Grass learns how to build tombstones, a thriving business in those years. Briefly, in the ferocious winter of 1946, when many old people and children die of hunger and cold, he is reunited with his family and learns that his mother and younger sister were raped when Danzig fell to the Russians. His father, an erstwhile Nazi, is broken in spirit. The vocation of art announces itself (the third hunger, he calls it, the first two being the hungers for food and for sex): He is drawn to sculpting, then drawing and painting. He meets women, in an agony of shyness at first, feeling their bodies in the anonymous crush of crowded buses, then on dance floors and by the lucky accidents of social introduction.

More and more, the remembered life of Günter Grass comes to resemble a fiction by Günter Grass -- an effect that he cunningly orchestrates with a two-way flow between the memoir and his novels, and by asserting the rights of the imagination in shaping his story. The hero's sister seeks refuge in a convent and finds herself imprisoned in a brutal regime of penitentiary discipline. The brother rescues her. Sorrow visits them both when their mother dies of cancer, though he does not weep until many years later. Near the end, the story takes on a fairy-tale tone: There once was a sculptor who occasionally wrote poems and sent one to a contest and won a prize that enabled him to buy a dress and a coat for his true love. As if on wings of magic, he is transported to a circle of poets and writers who will be the founders of the new German literature. At a dinner party with friends, a 3-year-old boy solemnly circles the table, tapping on a tin drum.

Is it truth or fiction that we are reading? It is both, as Grass repeatedly tells us: He is a novelist, a teller of tall tales who cannot be expected to cleave to the facts. Fair enough. But Grass is also a political moralist who can be expected to know that the imagination can be used to hide as well as illuminate the truth, and that some facts are more important than others. It is of little interest and no consequence whether or not Grass made the acquaintance, in the POW camp and in a Düsseldorf nightclub, of Joseph Ratzinger and Louis Armstrong, respectively, as he suggests while intimating at the same time that it might not be true. It matters a good deal more than he is willing to acknowledge that he has so little to remember or, in the absence of memory, imagine about the fanatical idealism, the moral cowardice, the indifference to the suffering of others, that were required of a believing Nazi and that, I suspect, are the real source of the shame Günter Grass kept secret for 60 years and has now halfheartedly confessed. ·

Joel Agee is the author of "Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany" and, more recently, "In the House of My Fear."


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