In the High Peaks

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gunter Grass Memoir--Peeling the Onion

It's been raining and extremely humid since Tuesday. The mosquitoes are impossible to avoid when outdoors, so Sasha and I "get exercise," but I can't say that either one of us enjoys it. Thank goodness for books and Wimbledon on TV.

For my German Postwar Literary Challenge: Gunter Grass--how sorry I am that I have forgotten how to do the umlaut for the "u" in Gunter on the computer. I will try to remedy that. In any case, I've been mesmerized by this 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature winner's 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion, in which Grass (born in 1927) reveals all he can remember about his childhood after age 10, wartime, and immediate postwar experiences, including the (some would say) scandalous fact that he was a 17-year-old soldier in the Waffen SS from early 1945 until the war's end in early May of that year. His belated revelation of his few months of wartime activities caused enormous controversy in Germany and in literary circles. Why was he silent about his past for so long, many Germans wanted to know.

The controversy is intellectually interesting because of what it says about German collective memory and twenty-first century understandings about Germany's past, but for me personally as a far-removed observer, I think the facts speak for themselves: that his assignment to the SS (artillery) was not his choice, nor was enlistment his choice. As a teenaged boy who had yet to shave a beard, that's where the authorities assigned him.

Yet in the memoir, Grass takes full responsibility for all the questions he never asked, for the actions he did not take, and for the shame and bewilderment he has felt and still feels concerning Germany's actions in World War II and its perpetration of the Holocaust.

As a work of literature, Peeling the Onion is a tour de force and not to be missed. Every paragraph is immaculately rendered. Not to be missed!


  1. Thanks for this review. It's a great reminder and I will put it on the wish list. I really liked Die Blechtrommel. I think this book damaged his reputation in Germany. A bit like Handke and his pro-Serbian feelings.

  2. Caroline,
    I think you'll find Peeling the Onion illuminating. I certainly did.

    I haven't read The Tin Drum yet, though I read Crabwalk. Have you read that?

    Grass is very old now--he was born in 1927--and as an ardent smoker for much of his life, I worry he won't be with us for much longer. I suppose it's absurd to wish that a man in his eighties will come out with another book.


  3. I have not read Crabwalk. Your wish isn't absurd at all and I just saw that he did publish a new book. On the Brothers Grimm and it was very well received in Germany. But since it is on German language, I'm not sure it will be translated. (I didn't mention but my native language is German/French. I live on the German border in the German speaking part of Switzerland.)

  4. Caroline,
    Thank you for letting me know about On the Brothers Grimm. I searched it on Google and found a wonderful article in the Guardian (UK) about its publication, with a brief interview with Grass. Very interesting.

    I'm so annoyed, though, if it's not to be translated. Grass won the Nobel Prize, for heaven's sake. One would think his autobiographical works would be translated!

    I'm so glad to know where you live. I will be following your blog religiously!

    Thank you,