Saturday, July 21, 2007

Timothy Garton Ash reviews Günter Grass autobiography

Just the other day, I linked to John Irving's loyal defence of his friend and mentor in the NYTimes review of Grass's Peeling the Onion.

Now, the book gets the benefit of a fair and balanced treatment in the New York Review of Books from a detached observer. While the book is praised (quite lavishly, in fact), Grass's belated confession about his time with Waffen-SS gets a sharp and realistic assessment. Here's the big-bang opening paragraph:

Granted: he was a member of the Waffen-SS. But suppose that revelation had not overshadowed last year's publication of Günter Grass's memoir, like a mushroom cloud. What should we have made of Peeling the Onion? We should, I believe, have said that this is a wonderful book, a return to classic Grass territory and style, after long years of disappointing, wooden, and sometimes insufferably hectoring works from his tireless pen, and a perfect pendant to his great "Danzig trilogy" of novels, starting with The Tin Drum. That is what we should still say, first and last.

Do read the fabulous review. Before I close, I just want to highlight something else that I learnt through Ash's review:

... A small token of his exemplary attitude is that he refers in his memoir to present-day Gdańsk, formerly Danzig, by its Polish name—something unusual among German writers. Poles were, of course, as shocked as anyone by the initial revelation, and Lech Wałęsa spontaneously said that Grass should be stripped of his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk.

But then Grass wrote a pained, dignified, apologetic letter to the mayor of Gdańsk. For me, the most moving text in the entire documentary record is the mayor's account of how he and his colleagues waited nervously for the novelist's letter (would he say what was needed? would he find the right tone?); received and read it with relief and appreciation; hurried to have it translated into Polish; then asked an actor to read it out loud to a large gathering in the City Hall. There was a moment's silence when the actor finished. Then the audience broke into a storm of applause. The mayor concludes his account, in the German version printed here, Danzig versteht seinen Sohn. Or, as he must have written in the original Polish, Gdańsk understands its son.