Crabwalking

June 21, 2003

grass-1This review of Günter Grass’s Crabwalk (2002) appeared in an edited form as “Six Times the Death Toll of the Titanic” in The Straits Times (21 June 2003).

Günter Grass, the 1999 Nobel laureate for literature, has been making two kinds of headlines of late. In politics, he continues his intense criticism of the Bush administration, calling it a threat to both the United States’ founding values and world peace.

At the height of the Iraq War, among other acts, he chose to praise the thundering outrage of the German people under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s leadership. It was a remarkable gesture, considering that this notorious contrarian has, for decades, played the stubborn cynic of his country’s politics.

Then, not too long ago, the English-speaking world was greeted by an altogether different challenge, a literary one, from him. Crabwalk, the translation of Grass’s major novel last year, is further proof that the times are indeed a-changing; his new story involves an actual cruise liner that had become a wartime troop and refugee carrier when a Soviet submarine sank it in 1945.

The Wilhelm Gustloff’s destruction, resulting in the loss of some 9,000 German civilians, is by far the worst maritime disaster ever, but no regular encyclopaedia you have will carry any record of it. Needless to say, no Hollywood director keen on revisiting sunken ships or Nazi atrocities will likewise tell its tale. This, despite the disaster having a death toll over six times the Titanic’s and eight times the Lusitania’s.

The central issue here of German wartime suffering is one of modernity’s most entrenched taboos. Its offensiveness lies in a feared weakening of an absolute horror towards Nazism, but its keeping does grave injustice to those Germans who were also victims. The Gustloff affair is doubly traumatic for Germany today because its initial muting was the very price its divided postwar citizens paid for a brief period of detente between democratic and communist Europe.

Grass now invokes this blind spot to forge a symbol for all gaps in German memory whose neglect can undermine a long history of reparative acts. He shows how, despite decades of meaningful remorse, a less than honest confrontation with the past can ironically cede the moral high ground to emerging threats, exemplified here by the fascist website his narrator stumbles on.

Paul Pokriefke, born on January 30, 1945, on a lifeboat fleeing the Gustloff’s fate, comes nickname-to-nickname with this old tragedy’s new avengers while researching into his personal origin. Incidentally, January 30 was also the date Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, and the birthday of the supposed Nazi martyr after whom the ill-fated ship was named.

The slight similarity to Salman Rushdie — Midnight’s Children centred too on a magical birth-date, the day of India’s independence — is no cause for worry here. It was the German who invented this game first, way back in 1959 with The Tin Drum‘s anti-hero choosing to stunt his own growth just as Germany began its Nazi adventure.

Grass is peerless in so spinning tales around strange coincidences, and Crabwalk demonstrates the fact with consummate skill. Three historical strands of Gustloff the man, his Jewish assassinator and the Russian commander who sank his namesake are flawlessly intertwined with the stories of three generations grappling with absent histories: Pokriefke’s, his mother’s, and his sons’.

This mirroring of a three-member relationship actually finds its basic formula in the novel’s symbolic use of dates. Blutzeuge — or blood-witnesses — the word in the web-address where Pokriefke finds both national and private horror, refers to a now-forgotten sacred Nazi holiday celebrated on November 9. It was when Hitler had his alleged vision from God to enter politics in 1918, when his infamous Beer Hall Putsch fell apart in 1923, and when the SS oath ceremony was initiated in 1925.

By thus pairing occult Nazism’s most potent date with the Gustloff’s traumatic one, Grass hopes to dissolve neo-Nazi appeal into bad history, the former being read as the curse of shunning unfinished business. History — which Pokriefke calls a clogged toilet where we flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising — jolts us with traumas that do not, in fact, recur mysteriously. They only seem to do so if we evade genuine issues and thus strengthen shadowy irrational forces.

In other words, history does not condemn us to senseless suffering, but we are truly doomed to the consequences of the parts we muck up and then obscure, misinterpret or force to appease immediate concerns. The warning lends extraordinary clarity to any action in difficult times as its lesson is ultimately not German but one which Germany, with its contrition for having caused two harrowing world wars, is swifter than most to recognise.

As such, in recent thoughts on what a vanquished Iraq implies, while pro-war voices continue to borrow the image of a successfully rehabilitated Germany, Germany itself sees only abysmal horror in American audacity. This horror is, for most parts, a subconscious one at its own earlier arrogance in striving to master history and at that sheer disregard for the repercussions all future generations will need to bear.

The understanding makes Germany’s anti-war stance neurotic in one sense but heroically poignant and wise in another. Crabwalk, as it turns out, is the perfect term to use after all: How else will you describe a national posture where, with one eye on the past and the other on the future, even a great maverick scuttles sideways towards truth, tied forever to the guilt of his country’s historical wrongs?

Gwee Li Sui

Günter Grass , the 1999 Nobel laureate for literature, has been making two kinds of headlines of late.
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