In the New York Times, William Grimes reviews Günter Grass's newly translated memoir, Peeling the Onion. You might recall that upon its German release, the book caused a major furor (pun certainly not intended) in Berlin's Nazi-obsessed feuilletons: The former "conscience of a nation" admitted that he had, in fact, served in the Waffen-SS. The finger-wagger-in-chief, said historian Joachim Fest, could no longer be trusted: "I wouldn't buy a used car from this man now."
Grimes too is skeptical:
"Peeling the Onion" is a verbally dazzling but often infuriating piece of work, bristling with harsh self-criticism, murky evasions and coy revisions of a past that, Mr. Grass steadfastly insists, presents itself to his novelist's imagination as a parade of images and stories asking to be manipulated.
The irritating component of this debate is that it is only now, after revealing that he was conscripted as a 17-year-old, Grass's status as moral exemplar is being challenged. Fest might not buy a used car from Grass—and this best-selling, "conscious-clearing" book will further ensure that he will never be forced onto the used car lot—but one wonders why he would have done so in the past. This is, of course, not the first blot on his record.
As Bernard Henri-Levy wrote in The New Republic:
I remember-we all remember-[Grass's] Cuban indulgences, his Sovietophilia at a time when, as Francois Mitterrand put it, the pacifists were in the West and the missiles in the East. Recall the way this social democrat-this time like Mitterrand-clung with a mysterious determination to the fiction of a GDR that would save the Germans from "colonization" by Great Britain and the United States.
Or his celebration of the Sandinista justice system, which was apparently teeming with model prisons, not unlike those found in Scandinavia. Also writing in The New Republic, Ian Buruma commented that, in his book My Century, "Grass has contrived to smear NATO, Kohl, and worst of all, the East German people demonstrating for freedom, with the tar of extreme nationalism and mass violence, as though they were all neo-Nazis in waiting."
When Grass won the Nobel Prize in 1999, Slate's Judith Shulevitz said that the real question "is not whether Grass is a Soviet apologist. The question is, is he now or has he ever been a great novelist?" Maybe. But the second question necessitates the first, being that Grass is, more often than not, a political novelist, a Pinter-like political celebrity.
Take a look around-look at initial reviews of Peeling the Onion—and their exclusive focus on Grass's almost gimmicky Waffen-SS revelation. And yes, they almost all include a half-caveat: While one can't really blame the Günter the Boy, did he not, as he was brow-beating the German public, have an obligation to inform his quarry that he too wore the SS uniform? It's a fair point. But should we be shocked that Grass, who bleated on about the "Cuban model," in the end had a broken moral compass? How is it that a writer with a fondness for East Germany, or "Sovietophilia," as Henri-Levy says, was rendering moral judgments on his countrymen in the first place?