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?

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  1. Could it be said that Gunter has been caught by the fuzz? Perhaps he should coco.

  2. Isn’t this a kick in the teeth?
    He’s on the road to rouen.
    He can no longer say he’s never done nothing like that before.
    The funniest thing is, maybe now, in the evening of the day, he’s seen the light.
    Anyway, I think he’s just in it for the money.

  3. I tried to read Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum,” after Salman Rushdie said this book was his favorite. I made it through about 30 tedious pages. I don’t think it was the translation either, the plot was awful, dead boring. All I remember was some hoo-haw about some old bag trying to have a baby in a potato field and then some dude hotfooting it from the fuzz across logs . . . it was a mess.

  4. Mostly good points, but this: Berlin’s Nazi-obsessed feuilletons is dead wrong. Germany’s elite journals are published in Hamburg (Spiegel, Die Welt), Frankfurt (FAZ) and Munich (Suddeutsche), not Berlin. One of modern Germany’s greatest strengths is its decentralization.

    Also, Grass, at least in German, truly is a great novelist even if he’s also a great asshole.

  5. “Grass has contrived to smear NATO, Kohl, and worst of all, the East German people demonstrating for freedom”

    Right on 2 outta 3.

  6. Grass’ WWII experiences were recounted in The New Yorker a couple weeks back:

    Interesting reading, though it’s interesting that he seems never to have actually fired a weapon at anyone. At least in the version he’s currently selling…

  7. “While one can’t really blame the G?nter 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?”

    I suspect the revelation might have provoked less head scratching if it had come out during the reaction to “Crabwalk”. …I seem to recall a lot of public vetting going on then, and having been in the SS seems a curious omission.

    Regardless, not ‘fessing up prior to the Nobel seems…unfair. Maybe they would have given him the prize anyway, maybe not. Either way, that seems like a bit of information they’d want to have.

    P.S. Tin Drum boring? Hardly!

  8. Is it any wonder that someone who has consistently sided with whoever was wearing the jackboots at the time would have worn them himself as soon as he was of age?

  9. Is procommunist is requirement to win the Nobel Literature prize. A partial list…
    Elfriede Jelinek, RIGOBERTA MENCHU, Jos? Saramago, Dario Fo, Albert Camus, Harold Pinter

  10. Only one other Supergrass fan here?


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