Gunter Grass, Peeling the Onion (2006)

What a great way to finish the year! I don’t know where to start to tell everything I love about this book. The images, the writing, the relentless scraping off and gnawing at one’s personal past, compared to the progressive peeling of an onion: peel after peel you approach the core, the smell makes you cry and blurs your judgment, and when you think you’ve reached the core there’s nothing left…

It’s a memoir, but it reads like a coming of age novel. It starts roughly in 1939, when Grass was a mere boy of 12 living in German Dantzig (which will become Polish Gdansk), accepting the Nazi propaganda without a twinge of bad conscience, and it ends in 1959 when Grass finishes his first famous novel, the Tin Drum.

I won’t talk so much about the controversy that surrounded the publishing of this book: Grass confesses that he served in the SS during the disastrous last months of the year, and he does so without apology or even explanation, but with a tremendous, heavy guilt perspiring throughout his work. His political consciousness also matured in the 20 years of the book’s span, and confession doesn’t make the burden any lighter.

The images are powerful, sometimes graphic, like a punch in the face. They’re precise and vivid and don’t spare you. You can feel, see and smell what the war was like, in its chaos and grotesque and terror, but also the difficult years of deprivation after the defeat. But these images come and go like headlights flashing at night along a highway: quick and shiny and then disappearing just as fast to leave you confused about what you really saw.

I love it when Grass acknowledges life as it is for a writer: life events nourish the writer’s imagination, he uses himself, real people and scenes for his work, but at the same time he turns them into something different, so that his own life somehow becomes fiction, or something intermediate, fiction and fact irremediably intertwined.

The writing is very typical of Grass: instead of moving straight to the fact, he crawls back and forth, in successive attempts to better define the fact. I understand it might be disturbing to some readers, but it actually adds layer and strength to the story.

There’s a lot of play around the truth in this book. It’s a confession, but one where the author immediately confesses that he’s unable to be entirely truthful. Are we to believe every single story the book contains? Did he really get to meet current Pope Benedict in an American POW camp and did they really play dice while talking about god and art? Did he really get to play jazz one night with Louis Armstrong in a German smoke-filled bar? I’m inclined to doubt it, even if he very well could have. Grass himself isn’t really sure that these events happened and his sister downright laughs and answers: “You lie like a trooper!”.

The book tries to embrace life’s complexities, yet it is full of energy. It’s surely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and will no doubt end up in my favorite list (for which I have still a few hours to decide!)

I leave you with all my warmest wishes for the new year. Have a wonderful celebration and see you in 2008!


5 thoughts on “Gunter Grass, Peeling the Onion (2006)

  1. Happy New Year, Smithereens! It’ll be an exciting one for you, I know! And thank you for alerting me to this book. I’d like to read some Gunther Grass and this sounds like a nice easy route into his work.

  2. Happy New Year, Smithereens! And happy reading in 2008! Thank you for your blog; it is one of my favorites.

    I have my eye on Peeling the Onion. It sounds terribly interesting.

  3. Wow, if I do my math correctly this means that Grass wrote The Tin Drum when he was only 32? I read it in German when I was in high school and I saw the movie at around the same time. I loved the book and it is long overdue for a reread!

  4. Pingback: Marie-Benedicte Vincent, La Denazification (2008) « Smithereens

  5. Pingback: Gunter Grass House in Lubeck « Smithereens

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