Examining memory

2008-10-02 08:05

In Paris, in 1956, the 29-year-old Günter Grass typed, on his portable Olivetti, the opening words of what was to become his first, much acclaimed novel, The Tin Drum: “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital.” It is with the writing of The Tin Drum, and thus the launching of his career as a novelist, that Günter Grass ends his absorbing and lyrical autobiography, Peeling the Onion.

Memory, claims Grass, is like an onion, whose skins can be peeled away, one by one, to reveal things long forgotten. He is, nevertheless, acutely aware of the unreliable nature of memory, particularly in one who, as a writer, has already ransacked and tampered with memory in order to create fiction, and can no longer always recall what the realities behind the recreations are.

Perhaps it is because of his acknowledgement of the nature of memory, his frequent interrogation of the information he is offering, and his departure from date-bound chronology, that the autobiography seems more convincingly honest than many do.

In particular, he confronts and exposes the self-absorbed, uncritical adolescent he was, growing up in Danzig (now the Polish town of Gdansk), and easily seduced by propaganda regarding the Fatherland and its Führer. His reading of Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, which highlights the horrors of war, made less impression on the youth than Jünger's Storm of Steel, which celebrates its potential to create heroes. Thus, in 1944, aged 17, his schooling unfinished, Grass signed up and served briefly as a tank gunner with the Waffen SS before being wounded and, with the collapse of Germany, placed in a series of POW camps, in one of which he engaged in debates with an earnest Catholic, who is conceivably the current Pope, Joseph Ratzinger.

Post-war, there was inevitable restlessness and self-recrimination amid the rubble, as Grass attempted to identify self, pursue a career and develop relationships. Extraordinarily versatile - as both artist and writer - Grass is nevertheless best known outside Germany for his prose. And perhaps the most endearing section in his autobiography is his tribute to his typewriters, a succession of portable Olivettis that he personifies and lauds. Now 80, the prolific Nobel Laureate (1999) cannot be persuaded of the advantages of modern technology. He remains as loyal as a lover to the Olivetti.

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