tue 07/07/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: Günter Grass | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Günter Grass

theartsdesk Q&A: Günter Grass

An unplanned encounter with the great German writer, who died on Monday

During the war Grass volunteered for the German submarine service to “escape the confines of the parental home”, later becoming a Luftwaffen helper. At the age of 17 he was enrolled in the Waffen SS, a short albeit significant moment in his biography, but one that he only chose to reveal in 2006 during promotion of his autobiographical book Peeling the Onion. The revelation sent shock waves through the German cultural world and called into question his role as a leading moral arbiter. Grass has repeatedly defended his SS membership, arguing that he was forced into the elite military force of the Third Reich, and insisting that he was not involved in any atrocities. However it continued to cast a shadow, and questions remain as to why he waited so long before making the revelation.

Grass is widely viewed as a master of the literary form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means something like “coming to terms with the past”. His novel Crabwalk (2002) epitomises this genre, focusing on the real-life but little-known story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship which went down in 1945 with thousands of refugees on board. The word "crabwalk" was intended to conjure the image, Grass said, of “scurrying backward to move forwards” or a sense of needing to look back on one’s history in order to be able to move on. Many years ago he extended his role of author to focus also on political campaigning for the German left, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), of which he has been a member for decades. Grass lived in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck in northern Germany. 

onionKATE CONNOLLY: Herr Grass, we’re both in a similar situation here in Istanbul – on an enforced holiday, if you like. Do you feel trapped, and desperate to get back to your writing desk, or are you enjoying a certain sense of liberation?

GÜNTER GRASS: Well, you know, aside from all the consequences of which we’re all aware such as the economic losses and the turbulence on the stock market, I’m really quite taken by the idea that nature occasionally spits on our perception of how things should be, causing us to have to throw all our plans to the wind and leaves us – despite our arrogant attitude that we can organise everything in seconds due to our sophisticated methods of communication – completely stranded! I have to say being stranded in Istanbul is possibly one of the most pleasant types of stranding I can imagine. I’m surrounded by hospitality and by things that quite simply interest me, as well as writer colleagues with whom I also happen to be friends, such as Yasar Kemal, and Orhan Pamuk. You know Kemal won the German book industry’s Peace Prize 13 years ago, and I wrote the laudatio (tribute) for him. We’ve seen each other on several occasions in Germany, but this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him here in his native Turkey.

How do you treat the experience of being in a strange place? Is it a good chance for you to gather your thoughts or plot new novels, particularly in this city which seems to be steeped in much of the type of magic realism that dominates so much of your writing, or is it too distracting for that? Do you take notes, for instance?

No, I don’t do that, but when I get home I will gather some of the lasting impressions and make a few notes for myself, you know, the things I consider… to be most important, the things that are worthy of being stored for safe-keeping. But don’t expect that I’m considering writing my Istanbul novel, because you’ll be disappointed. (He chuckles).

Does your background as a refugee give you more of a sense of being perhaps "at home" here than you might otherwise feel?

I come from a family of refugees. I belong to the 14 million Germans who after the war, or in the last few weeks and months of it, had to leave their homeland. That homeland is now gone – in my case, it’s now Poland. The Germans began the war and lost it and as a result we had to pay for it in this way. It’s the bitter truth. And of course you can never replace that sense of Heimat by moving to another area. It’s gone forever. The advantage of that though is that it makes you far more mobile. Compare that to many people who never ever leave the flatlands of the Heimat where they were born. They get fatter and fatter through their sedentary ways and become even less mobile in their heads and they stop thinking altogether. If you’re without a Heimat you’re less likely to do that. I find it necessary see these positive sides of being without a Heimat.

So much of what has been lost is resurrected through literature

How does this influence your writing? I can think of lots of your books where being without a homeland/being displaced, is an issue.

What’s for sure is that while not all of my books, a large number of them – from The Tin Drum to Cat and Mouse, Dog Years and The Flounder – are carried on this theme of lack of homeland. Literature is very powerful for its ability to recreate something that has been lost – in this case completely and utterly lost. So much of what has been lost – to take a prime example the Dublin James Joyce describes, while it no longer exists in the form it once did – is resurrected through literature.

In keeping with a trend you started several decades ago when you began taking quite an active role in politics, you’ve managed to create quite a debate about the Armenian genocide of 1915/1916 [when between one and 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire are believed to have been massacred by Ottoman soldiers on the orders of the authorities].

Yes, the destruction of Armenia’s minority. Many told me it was a completely taboo subject – I sensed that, but the students with whom I’ve discussed this have been very open about it. I told them they cannot ignore the past and the crimes committed in the past. You do so at your peril. Dealing with past mistakes is a national responsibility, and writers, like myself, carry the responsibility to face past mistakes and to emphasise the importance of facing up to them. Even the press, which can be quite polemical, has reported what I’ve said correctly, whereas a few years ago it might have greatly angered them, which all in all seems to me to be a sign that the time is finally rife to step over this particular barrier.

It’s important for me to stress once more, my membership was not voluntary, I was called up!

You could be talking about Germany and its past, which plays a huge role – this idea of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or facing and dealing with the past.

Yes, there are parallels I was able to draw on which gave me a good way in to this topic. Like Turkey, Germany had a collective approach to the issue of Nazism. First the tendency was not to deal with it at all. Just look at how hard the Germans found it to deal with the war after the event, how they turned inwards and didn’t want to confront it. I think of myself at the age of 17 at the end of the war, and how one was suddenly, out of a sense of cluelessness and sheer ignorance and also a sense of really not wanting to know what had happened which in turn stemmed from a refusal to look too closely. Until suddenly documents and evidence come to light that offered evidence that was beyond doubt. Just think of the first photographs that were taken by the American troops who liberated the concentration camps. There was Bergen-Belsen, then Auschwitz, which the Russian Army liberated and that was only the start of a very long process of coming to terms with the past.

You said you recently watched a German TV documentary which lays bare a lot of previously unseen documentary evidence of the Armenian massacre, much of which has been sitting in the German foreign ministry archives.

Yes, the film impressed me, and is important because it lays bare the facts so that Turkish politicians and intellectuals can no longer avoid taking them seriously. If they try to avoid this, the country will falter and be unable to develop, and it will also be used as a tool by all the opponents of Turkey’s entry to the EU.
crabwalkYou’re talking about a long process if you compare it to Germany – again, a process you touch on in many of your works, most notably perhaps, in your 2002 novel Crabwalk, about a nation’s ability to move forward only after it has looked back on its past.

Yes, there were plenty who resisted right through the Fifties and Sixties any form of dealing with the past. They wanted the past to remain the past, and to concentrate solely on reconstruction, and rebuilding the German economy. It was only the first student protests of 1967 and '68 that took this debate to the wider public, and since then of course, our past has repeatedly been catching up with us.

But you know I always say, it’s not just us, it applies to other countries too. Just look at England. How long does it need in order to deal with its, in part at least, criminal past as a colonial power? It applies also to Holland, to Belgium and to France. And I mean how hard have the Japanese found it to recognise the crimes they committed in Korea and China? So for anyone, whether English or German, who starts addressing these issues in Turkey must first look to their own back porch and brush the dirt away, and then the chance that others who are trapped in their own isolating stubbornness will listen to you is perhaps greater.

Is it maybe problematic for you to be the one to bring this message, since you hid your own history – your membership of the Waffen SS – for so many decades? Or does that make you more believable?

Listen here, I was called up to the Waffen SS at the age of 17, and what the German press made out of this, and what many chose to repeat parrot-fashion thereafter is a separate story. I’ll admit for me, even though I was not involved in any war crimes, it was indeed a very considerable burden, that I only first started to realise after the war, through details such as just what sort of a group I had been involved in. Though it’s important for me to stress once more, my membership was not voluntary, I was called up! But nevertheless I belonged to it for five months, and the burden of this became ever larger the more the extent of the crimes that the Waffen SS had committed was revealed. If I look at it from my perspective as a boy, I considered the Waffen SS to be an elite unit which, as I knew, suffered the most war dead, because it was always posted to the heart of the conflicts. And stupid as young lads are, of course it held a certain wonderment for me.

I’d add that there’s a tendency to load responsibility for all the crimes that were committed by the Nazis, at the door of the Waffen SS and the SS, when in fact members of the Wehrmacht, which was of course much bigger as an organisation, committed a horrifying number of crimes and so they too carry the responsibility as well.

It’s four years now since the book in which you first made these revelations, Peeling the Onion, was published. Has the process of writing about it meant it has become less of a burden for you or does it still weigh you down?

I’m content that I was able to make it public on my terms and at a moment in time in which I was personally able to write autobiographically. The book is not only about those five months, it’s a book about my young years, my growing up, etc. The memoirs lead up to the time my first big novel, The Tin Drum, came out.

When the SS revelations came out, many said you should be stripped of the Nobel Prize (which you received in 1999), or you should lose your honorary citizen status you have in Danzig, or that you should no longer be considered a moral authority. How did that affect you, and has Günter Grass’s reputation now recovered?

I really don’t want to talk any more about a topic I’ve dedicated a lot of time to over the past few years. Anyone who wants to know more about it can read the book – everything’s there. But if you’re saying, does my background give me the right to lecture the Turks on Armenia? Well, the two things are completely separate. Let’s say it’s more the case that someone of my age – and regardless of whether he was in the Waffen SS or not – that is, someone who experienced the last months of the war, is aware of how difficult it was to be confronted with these crimes and knows how long it took Germany – well into the generations of my children and grandchildren – before it started to really be dealt with. But that has nothing to do with what I did when I was 17.

Do you believe in the power of literature – your literature – to heal or help heal wounds?

Just how long did the European literature in the age of the Enlightenment take to make an impact? I believe around 100 or 200 years. And there are still regions even in Europe in which this process of enlightenment has yet to arrive, that are, as they ever have been, intolerant. But even there there are traces of it. On the other hand there were also countries, like Germany, that considered themselves to be enlightened that neverlessness proved capable of slipping back into barbarity. Sometimes we can learn from history, but as we see in the case of the United States that is often a limited ability. The defeats that happened in Vietnam were simply too far away for Americans to accept them as defeats, or to be able to draw the right conclusions from them. The same is true of Afghanistan.

tindrum_filmLet’s get back to your literature. Your 1959 novel The Tin Drum (scene from the film pictured right) remains your most enduring contribution to the literary world, and is certainly the novel you’re most famous for in the English-speaking world.

That’s what they tell me, yes (chuckles).

It’s a book in part about the ability of culture to overcome war and hate.

Yes, about how important culture is to overcome war and hate – that’s a strong message that emerges from the novel. That’s what the EU is trying to manage  overcoming war  but it’s one of its many deformities that it so one-sidedly tried to do this through economic means, and expanding markets – things it places at the forefront. This is a mistake. And yes, of course, they give out money for cultural projects which is all well and good, but as to spreading any sort of sense that Europe has a cultural identity, I don’t feel that at all.

I’ll try to limit my theory here to the area of literature, as I know you want me to talk more about my books. Well, just take my style of novel writing, including the title of the novel you just mentioned, The Tin Drum. It’s a picaresque novel in its form, and what’s interesting to realise is that the original form of the picaresque novel took the best pickings from Moorish, Arabic and Spanish sources. Cervantes was only able to write Don Quixote because of the experiences he had had in Algeria and elsewhere in North Africa, where he got to know certain Arabic storytelling forms, which he then adopted himself. Now that for me is an understanding of European culture. If we were more aware of this we’d be in a better position to overcome our Eurocentricity. Letting Turkey into the EU would help as well.

I have to be increasingly stingy with my time, because when you get the Nobel Prize, you don’t just earn prestige

Tell me about the filming of The Tin Drum. What is it like to put your precious book in the hands of a film director?

It was an utter surprise. At first I was very sceptical about the idea of filming it, and I turned down many a suggestion until Schlöndorff came along with his concept which gave me a sense that that which would be lost linguistically – which of course is an issue every time a novel is filmed  would be given replacement value through the range of his filmic view. And as it proved, it was unbelievably successful on the whole.

Is it difficult, losing the control of the language?

No, not at all if it means that the book is always available in bookshops (chuckles).

What sort of an influence did winning the Nobel Prize in 1999 have on your life and your writing? Does it change things greatly?

It hasn’t changed my writing or way of writing one iota. But what has changed is my time. I have to be increasingly stingy with my time, because when you get the Nobel Prize, you don’t just earn prestige, you also get a lot more letters delivered to your door, and people pressing you for things, and more requests, more invitations. I’ve had to learn the art of saying no in order to have the time that I need and not to have the feeling I have to speed up if I want to make time to work on a manuscript, or a drawing. You know, to ensure I have enough time to do the things that I’ve always done.

Do you feel that that is actually the role of a writer – besides his novels and plays – to speak out? Do you feel grudgingly obliged to do this or is it a mantle that you gladly don?

Of course, I have to take issues seriously and I do feel obliged to do so. Just take for example the biography of my friend Yasar Kemal. He has been imprisoned and spent time in exile. There’s a famous sentence from him which goes: “the blame for Turkish literature lies in the prison”. It’s a terrible sentence, but one that applies to him and many other writers besides.

Other things that frustrate and anger me and about which I feel the need to speak out, though my fellow countryfolk would often prefer I didn’t, is that of the ridiculous headscarf ban. It’s even being elevated to the status of a state law in France! And here it’s the Kemalists [the followers of Ataturk] who practise the same idea, which means people who wear headscarfs are not allowed to study. And even in Germany there are some states – we’re a federal land and some laws are decided from state to state  that are also tinkering with the idea of pushing this through as a law or a ban. It’s absurd. I have to say I’m an advocate of secularisation, of a really strict divide between the church and state. But I’m disturbed by the rise in the fanaticism of secularisers who believe they are protecting secularisation or giving it a necessary boost at least, with these ridiculous bans.

A sort of secularist fundamentalism, you mean?

Yes, precisely that. But you know it will the effect of driving women into isolation – the opposite effect it should have. It’ll exclude from the education system those who because of their belief are not able to go to university. The consequences are very negative. If you follow through on this you should also ban crucifixes from the walls of schools and official buildings in Catholic, southern Germany. And where does it stop? Do you want to prevent people from having piercings? We already have a smoking ban. We’re constantly being treated like children, and I think if we’ve made the decision that we want to live in a democracy, then we should work at maintaining the rule of tolerance.

What are you working on now?

I’ve actually just finished writing a book. It’s due to come out in the autumn and is called Grimms Words.  It’s an account of the making of the German Dictionary that the Grimm Brothers Jakob and Wilhelm started. Of course they’re best known throughout the world for their fairytale collections, but they did much else besides. It mainly takes place in the 19th century, but because this book wasn’t completed until way after the brothers’ deaths – it took 120 years – it’s therefore a long story.

And this time it has nothing to do with war?

On the contrary, it has a lot to do with war. With lots of wars. The German Dictionary begins its life in the kingdom of Prussia, then we move on to Bismarck and the German Reich, until the end of the First World War, 1918. Prior to that we have the German-French war, the German-Danish War, the German-Austrian War. Then we reach the Weimar Republic, 12 years of Nazism – all this time work continued on the dictionary. And then astonishingly, as Germany was divided – militarily, economically, ideologically – and the Cold War reigned, the dictionary continued to be produced in East and West. They worked on it until 1960, when they finally finished the 32nd volume. What fascinates me is how the dictionary was completed despite German division. Everything from the economy to the political system was divided, but it just goes to show you can’t divide culture. It’s a coincidence but it’ll come out 20 years after German reunification. I like to see it as my declaration of love to the German language.

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