While this new novel is one of his most accessible, it’s shot through with the usual Grass obsessions: love of good food and democratic socialism, disdain for Martin Heidegger and violent student radicals, anger that we’re destroying the ecosystem and all sense of the past. As a man who’s spent his career chasing the ghost of the 20th century, he’s particularly appalled by the historical amnesia cultivated by many postwar Germans. One of the book’s heroes is Herr Hösle, a present-day schoolteacher who gets in trouble for telling his students too much about the terrors of Kristallnacht and pointing out that it happened on exactly the same day, November 9, that Berliners began dancing in pure joy on the Wall. As Grass wrote in Dog Years, "Nothing is pure."
Grass’ devotion to historical memory is easy to understand. He was raised under the big lie of National Socialism and later saw his Germanized hometown of Danzig turn into the Polish city of Gdansk; the world he once knew has been obliterated by war, politics, the slow erosion of time. All that’s left is what he can keep in his head. But it’s a very big head. Grass seems to remember every cornice in downtown Danzig, every gust of wind that tousled his hair, every fib ever uttered by a right-wing politician, every pig knuckle that ever landed on his plate. Although he has always taken pride in living fully in the present — he’s a voracious reader, traveler, mushroom hunter and campaigner for social justice — his imagination has always come most alive in the past. That’s one reason why My Century is his most resonant book in 20 years.
It’s a cruel truth that artists’ early work usually has an imaginative richness unmatched by later, often more polished efforts. This is certainly true of Grass, whose most enduring work is bound to be the "Danzig Trilogy" based on his childhood: The Tin Drum, Dog Years (his finest work) and Cat and Mouse. Tin Drum not only triggered international interest in magical realism (and a stridently banal film), but its premise — using a preternatural child’s story to explore the history of a whole culture — became the template for countless other novels, most famously Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
If Grass has an American analog, it’s probably Kurt Vonnegut, another literary superstar of the ’60s and ’70s who’s fallen sadly (and unfairly) out of fashion. Both went through World War II and could never shake off what they learned there. Both became men of the Left who mistrusted totalizing theories, be it the certainties of the two-headed beast that Grass calls Marxengels or the end-of-history pieties of triumphalist capitalism. Both became writers whose skepticism about the world — and their own unreliable natures! — gave birth to a comic vision that mixes history, fantasy, satire, social commentary and an incurable soft spot for lost causes.
While Vonnegut has always been the more elegant entertainer, Grass is clearly the harder-headed realist. Not for him the consolations of Tralfamadore. Utterly unsentimental in his sense of absurdity, he’s the sort of brash writer who makes you laugh and makes you think, but has a hard time moving you. Perhaps that’s why I was so unexpectedly touched by the final story in My Century, a writerly coup that finds Grass at his sunniest and most magical. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens, but I will say that he manages to end this book about our haunted house of a century on a note of tender optimism, even love. If we survived all this, he suggests, how can we not be eager to find out what happens next?�
MY CENTURY | By GÜNTER GRASS | Harcourt Brace & Co. | 320 pages | $25 hardcover