Ending a long silence

FROM his menagerie, Nobel Laureate G�nter Grass has chosen the crab for his latest book of fiction, revolving around the sinking of the cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff towards the end of World War II. The torpedoing of the "German Titanic" by a Soviet submarine, which killed 9,000 women, children and war wounded fleeing from the embattled eastern war zone, was a human tragedy of a greater magnitude than the disaster that stuck the luxury liner. Yet the post-war German guilt after the havoc of the Hitler years has made the victims maintain a discreet silence over the sufferings that had been heaped upon them.

Now, after half a century, Grass, inheritor of the mantle of Heinrich Boll, has dared to write about this chapter of German history. Boll's generation, after all, had been weighed down by the stricture of Theodor Adorno: "It is barbaric to write a poem after Auschwitz." Grass, who proclaimed that it was a duty "to take the goosesteps out of German language, to lure it out of its idylls and fogged inwardness" and declared that truth exists in the plural and that there is no such thing as a single truth but only multitude of truths, crabwalks through that episode to unfold that painful incident.

The narrator, a journalist born on that fateful day when his mother was lowered into a tugboat from the sinking ship, pieces together the little incidents from his mother's recall of that bleak day and the staccato information that his son is gathering on his website where he is engaged in a furious debate with a Jewish surfer. The narration is thus three-way, the grandmother's tale, the journalist's reportage and the hypertext of the cyberspace.

The narrator's mother, Tullu, invariably brings the topic of the sinking of the ship at Sunday lunches and has a tendency to speak loudly and just at the wrong time, about which her friend says, smiling: "That's Tullu's way. She says things that people don't wish to hear. Of course, she exaggerates a bit." Tullu's graphic memory of the night, when she was being transferred to the tugboat as she gives birth to her son, is of the bodies going down under the freezing water, a scene that turns her hair, at the age of 18, all white. This is the scene that she keeps referring to at her dinners. And at the same time when she hears, in 1953, about the death of Stalin, she lights candles in her kitchen and cries her eyes out. Ironically enough this loyal citizen of East Germany sends her grandson to the western part and, for good measure, presents him with a computer.

Grass piles up irony and wry humour in his narration of the many layers and employs the hypertext of the new medium to good effect. Surfing his son's website he discovers that contemporary reports were posted in their original wording. Salutes were not "given" but "presented". The German salute was "presented" from the newest dimension, the cyberspace. Also in the Internet he makes another discovery, the translation of an appeal penned by the Russian writer Elya Ehrenberg, calling upon all Russian soldiers to "murder, rape and take revenge for the havoc wreaked by the fascist beasts on the fatherland, revenge of Mother Russia."

The long silence about the sinking of Gustlaff and other tragedies of that period — the saturation bombing of cities like Dresden, for example — was perhaps unavoidable. While owning up for the crimes that have been committed in her name, Germans, like Boll and Grass, have managed to win a degree of acceptance outside their country and at the same time marginalise the neo-Nazis emerging at home. And this is what Grass demonstrates with bravura — the need to discuss threadbare historical happenings. And he says unequivocally that this is not to equate German suffering with that of its victims but to acknowledge the tragedy of the century gone by.

Crabwalk, G�nter Grass, Faber and Faber, �6.99.


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