Book Reviews Non-Fiction
Peeling the Onion - A Memoir,
By Alidë Kohlhaas
Peeling the Onion, A Memoir is Günter Grass' latest book. The controversial German winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature has chosen to tell us a bit about himself and in the process has revealed a lot, and then again, very little. The reason for this statement is that Grass plays a mental game with his readers about his early life story and what has motivated him to be who he is. He does this game playing very artfully as he jumps back and forth between memory and speculation.
I am glad to have read the book for it gets much closer to the center of the 'onion' than the author might have wanted to reach. Art has a way of taking over, and this book certainly can be classified as such.
Of course, by now anybody who knows Grass' work will also know that in this book he has revealed his brief membership in the Waffen SS. This little tidbit came out prior to the book's release. As a consequence, he has been accused of making the early revelation to drum up high book sales upon publication. Whether or not this is true, lies within the field of speculation, which is best avoided. It cannot be denied, however, that this disclosure caused an uproar in his home country, and a lifting of the eyebrows in other places.
On hindsightand don't we all have 20/20 vision in this respect it did not really surprise this reviewer that much. His self-righteous tone in his political activities, his excessive admonitions to his fellow citizens, and his anti-capitalism (make that anti-Americanism) did not just reveal someone with left-leaning tendenciesthough never radicalbut someone who appeared to want to camouflage something unexpressed. At the same time, on close reading of his books, the feeling keeps creeping up that Grass' characters say either too much or too little as they march through the eternally gray landscape of his stories about the former Danzig, his birthplace, or any other setting.
What has bothered people about his revelation is that he stayed silent for decades while he went about urging his fellow Germans to repent and acknowledge their misdeeds during the Hitler years. By misdeeds he, of course, also meant that ordinary Germans should acknowledge that their silence made them accomplices in the foul deeds of the Hitler government during the period 1933-45. True, True! But, ah, herein lies the problem. "Look into your own mirror," many will have said or thought when the truth came out.
As one reads Grass' memoirhe does not call it an autobiographyit soon becomes clear that he fails to apply the same rigor of truth to his own person as he wants others to apply to themselves. In his memoir things happen, and then he states they may not have happened. He tells us that he has forgotten much of the past, and that what he appears to recall may be just a figment of his imagination. It is an interesting literary artifice, for it is an attempt to make one believe he is groping for the truth through the various layers of onion skins. Yet, by halfway through the memoir, this approach grows stale. It all seems a little unbelievable, a little contrived. The art is too visible.
One cannot deny that Grass is a good writer with a great imagination. But, what is seldom said is that Grass has a habit of smudging the truth, of playing with his readers in all of his books. The most famous of these is his very first, The Tin Drum. It is said to be his masterwork in which he attacks his fellow countrymen and women for what happened during the Nazi years. Yet, the book and its main character, Oskar Matzerath, take no real stand either for or against the Hitler years. Those who read it as a condemnation of the Nazi period and the generation(s) that served it have been misled by Grass. People have read things into this book, which do not really exist.
In Peeling the Onion Grass refers quite a number of times to Matzerath, the tin drum player who refused to grow up beyond age three, yet is capable of quite a few misdeeds. One thing to be said for Matzerath is that he has a far better memory than Grass seems to have of his own childhood and early manhood. Perhaps Matzerath's memory of the past comes far closer to Grass' than his own.
Peeling the Onion's German title is Beim Häuten der Zwiebel. Factually, this translates into 'While Peeling the Onion', which is a far better title, considering the tone of the book. Eyes can get clouded by tears while peeling onions, an apt metaphor for what appears to have happened to Grass' mind as he tried to recall his past. It became clouded, perhaps through the long silence, and perhaps for living so long in denial.
We learn a little about his childhood. His parents had been lower middle class Germans living in Danzig in a two-room apartment. A hallway joined it to the small grocery store run by his mother. The boy's only personal space in this place, where he and his sister had shared his parent's bedroom until he had been moved to the living room couch, had been beneath the niche under the sill of the right-hand living room window. There he had kept his collection of picture cards of famous artworks that came inside cigaret packs sold in his mother's store. This is how he acquired his early ability to identify the works of the great masters of the past, his love for art, and his desire to become an artist.
He tells us about the boys in his childhood and youth who vanished one day, and whose absence aroused no curiosity in him. Nor had he asked why his uncle Franz, a relative on his mother's side, had been executed by the Germans. This is one theme that runs through the book, this regret for not having asked questions. He did not ask why the sacking of the synagogues in his hometown, Danzig, or of Jewish shop windows being smashed, an act of which he was "very much a curious onlooker." Grass was 11 or 12 at the time.
For once Grass does not say something may or may not have happened. He goes for the jugular of his own memory. "No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favor. My childhood years seem to have been completely untroubled by doubt. No, I was a pushover, always game for everything that the times, which called themselvesexhilaratedly and exhilaratingly modern, had to offer."
Yet, as the book progresses, we find countless excuses for why he did or did not do something. At age 15 he unsuccessfully volunteered to join the famous U-Boat fleet. He claims he did so to escape his constrictive home and family, especially a father whom he disliked for unknown reasons. Instead he was conscripted into the Reicharbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service), a compulsory service for most boys over 15, who had left school. This service had been established to combat unemployment prior to WWII, but then became an auxiliary formation that supported the Wehrmacht (Army). As such, he became a member of an anti-aircraft Flak Battery, and that is how most people knew him as far as his war efforts were concerned.
What he failed to tell the world is that in 1944 at age 17 he was conscripted into the regular army and transferred to the Waffen SS, trained as a tank gunner and fought with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. In the last weeks of the war he became separated from his unit. Wounded, he ended up in a Marienbad army hospital, but only after many side-journeys. There the war ended for him.
How did Grass react to finding himself drafted into this SS unit? "There is nothing that can be read as a sign of shock, let alone horror," he writes. "I more likely viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up." No one, it seems, had told him that ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers disliked the Waffen SS, nor that average Germans approached the subject of the SS with caution.
"I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent," he writes. Near the end of his army career, while trying to find his way back to his unit, he met up with a private first class of the regular Wehrmacht, who "became my guardian angel."
The Pfc told him, "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 question asked . . ." Somehow this unnamed Pfc found him a 'an ordinary Wehrmacht jacket somewhere. . . it even fit." Just how the man obtained it, Grass cannot recall. "That way, minus the double rune, he liked me a lot better. I came to like me better, too."
Just where and when his conversion came he fails to reveal. Grass, however, admitted that later "[w]hat I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it." Do we see some tears running here from all that onion juice?
Grass writes that there were signs from which he should have gathered that the end of the Thousand-year Reich was at hand. But, as usual, he tells us he failed to notice the signs. This seems strange considering that he would eventually be a writer, a person, who is supposed to ask questions constantly, and who is supposed to observe what others fail to see. One has to ask how can one move past officers and ordinary soldiers alike hanging from trees with signs declaring them traitors without realizing that this was the act of a desperate army in retreat?
A tone of resentment and even self-pity runs through the book. He far too often makes mention of the 'Gustloff', the German ship with thousands of civilians as well as soldiers and nurses aboard, sunk by an overeager Russian captain. It was the subject of his book 'Crabwalk' in which he began his whining about the victimization of Germans during WWII. While this act of unnecessary carnage is regrettable, let Grass be reminded that a U-Boat attack on a civilian liner, the Athena on Sept. 3, 1939 was an unprovoked killing of civilians, the first of its kind in WWII. The sinking of the Lusitania in WWI by the Germans was the first of its kind in any modern war.
There are many others, but another ship comes to mind, the City of Benares, which carried about 400 passengers on the way to Canada, including 99 children. A U-Boat attack on Sept. 17, 1940 ended with 248 dead, including 77 of the children. Self-pity and self-justification can lead a writer down a very slippery slope, in this case a watery one.
The whining tone also creeps in when he describes his journey through Dresden following the firebombing. As unnecessary and painful as this bombing had been, let us remind Grass that the German attack on Coventry on Nov. 14, 1940 had ended in the first firestorm created by bombing in world history. More than 500 bombers carried not only ordinary bombs, but two types of incendiaries, one made of magnesium, the other of petroleum. These ensured that firefighters could not extinguish the flames and that these flames created a horrific firestorm.
His recollection of his time spent as a POW is also suffused with self-pity. He tells us that in the American POW camp, where he eventually ended up, prisoners were given only 850 calories of food a day through a plan "we assumed was in line with the Morgenthau Plan which had been concocted for us."
There he spins a tale often repeated by Germans, even by those born after 1945. Germans are obsessed with the Morgenthau Plan, which was never truly put into action. Why not mention that American soldiers generously shared their food with civilians even before war's end despite orders not to fraternize. Food shortages were inevitable since the Allied Command had underestimated the number of soldiers that would end up in POW camps, and also because they had underestimated the number of refugees streaming in from the East about 13 millionin addition to the stateless already in the western zones of Germany.
I have yet to meet a German who will speak voluntarily of the Marshall Plan that helped the Germans to create their 'Wirtschaftswunder'. Many have never heard of Gen. George C. Marshall. In most German minds the economic recover, which by the way Grass found objectionable as it was too capitalistic, happened solely through German efforts rather than on the backs of foreign workers and American foreign aid. Such is memory.
Then there is the allusion to having shared a POW tent with Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope. He keeps on repeating the maybe or the maybe not of this event. Why didn't he confirm this by contacting Ratzinger's office at the Vatican? When he wrote the book, Ratzinger was still a cardinal and probably approachable. After all, the Pope admitted he had been in the Hitler Youth, and like Grass had served as a Flak helper. There is such a thing as confirmation through research even when writing a memoir. Research does not make a memoir any less authentic.
Well, having thus bitched, let me repeat that aside from my comments, there is the artistic element of this novel. It makes it one of those books that serious readers should have on their bookshelves.