PEELING THE ONION
BY GNTER GRASS, TRANSLATED BY MICHAEL HENRY HEIM
HARVILL SECKER, 432pp, 18.99
SUPPOSE YOU ARE A VERY FAMOUS writer who has made a great name for himself as the only man in a nation of liars and hypocrites to tell them the truth about themselves and their shameful past. Suppose, though, that you have not told the truth about yourself. Not the whole truth, anyhow. What do you do?
This was Gnter Grass's predicament. Having put Germany back on the literary map after the war, he absolved his contemporaries of guilt in order to denounce the fathers and grandfathers who had led them to perdition.
"I was too young to have been a Nazi," he told an audience of Holocaust survivors in 1967. His mantra was: "Innocent through no merit of my own."
But he wasn't innocent. And he had been a Nazi. Worse: at 17 he had volunteered for the Waffen SS, the military wing of the organisation responsible for the genocide of six million Jews. Unlike the Hitler Youth, nobody had to join the SS. It was a privilege, reserved for the racially and ideologically pure.
Not even defeat cured Grass of his Nazism, as it did many of his countrymen. After a year of "denazification" at the hands of his American captors, he was still a vicious anti-Semite and what we would now call a Holocaust-denier.
Grass knew that these facts were on record. They would have to come out one day. So when he sat down to write his memoir, Peeling the Onion, he knew he would need all his literary skills to weave them into a narrative from which his reputation could somehow emerge intact.
He almost got away with it. With a few exceptions, Germans are too respectful of intellectuals to call Grass a fraud. They certainly bought the book. There was a stink here and in America, but the indignation was short-lived and second-hand. In our monoglot culture, hardly anybody could read Grass in his own words.
Well, now we all can. The translator, Michael Henry Heim, has done a good job on an ingenious but treacherous text that glides constantly between past and present, first and third person, memory and imagination. Having read Peeling the Onion in both languages, I still do not know what to believe. Did Grass really find himself thrown together with Joseph Ratzinger in a POW camp, playing dice? And did he really tell the future Benedict XVI: "You sound like a grand inquisitor. Or are you aiming higher?"
In English, even more than in German, it becomes clear that even now Grass is not quite ready to come clean. He admits he concealed his SS service, but claims "there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light" - as if his memory, so selective in other respects, could be relied on in this one. "I could not be accused of active complicity," he writes. But he deploys his trademark mockery of Nazi pretensions to avoid confronting the fact that his Panzer division, in the last weeks of the war, tried to fight its way through to Berlin in order to rescue Hitler from his bunker. What if they had succeeded?
Grass punctuates his narrative by showing how his experiences were later recycled (and sanitised) in his novels. More than half of the book deals, not with the war years, but with his literary apprenticeship.
His first novel, The Tin Drum, is the best-known work of postwar German fiction. Yet the famed opening sentence - "Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital" - reads differently in the light of these memoirs. The eponymous drummer - the dwarf Oskar - bears eloquent witness to the German catastrophe with his ear-splitting screams. It is not he but the "normal" people around him who are drawn into insanity. Yet now we know Grass was really just one of the young fanatics who dragged out that bloody last year of the war, Oskar seems less a witness than a perjurer, providing false alibis for his creator.
Peeling the Onion is not the conscientious confession of a man soon to meet his maker, but the conceit of a garrulous raconteur. The author of Dog Years is too old a dog to learn the new trick of telling the unvarnished truth about himself.