(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Headbirths, Grass becomes the narrator of his own novel, a technique that he used in From the Diary of a Snail. Though not a novel in the traditional sense, Headbirths presents the story of a German couple, Harm and Dörte Peters, who, even as they travel through Asia, are unable to get away from the political upheavals at home and who are unable to decide whether to have a baby of their own. This decision is the source of the title: The only births are “head births,” and at this rate, writes Grass, the German race will die out. Grass also ponders a world populated with as many Germans as there are Chinese, for example, and at the end of the novel Grass puts Harm and Dörte in their old Volkswagen in the midst of a huge crowd of Turkish, Indian, Chinese, and African children, still unable to decide on a child of their own.

Headbirths explores one of Grass’s major interests: the making of art and the relationship of artist, art, and audience. In this novel, Grass writes that Harm and Dörte disagree with him on certain issues, so that Grass is “forced” to change his original ideas. His other major interest, politics, also is an integral part of this book. Grass presents not only his own political views but also Harm and Dörte arguments about the upcoming political election at home. Sometimes Grass and Dörte “agree” with each other, and Grass writes that he and Dörte attend press conferences together, a plot point that blurs the line between art and reality. Though Grass actually did travel to Asia, Headbirths is more about his political and theoretical ruminations than about the actual travels. Harm and Dörte, though sometimes shown visiting fertility temples, or indirectly presented arguing about politics or the “Yes-to-baby/No-to-baby” question, are never fully developed as characters. Rather, they serve as a springboard for Grass to present his political views and concerns.

Headbirths Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out is a fictionalized account of Günter Grass’s reading tour of China in the fall of 1979, with stops in Singapore and Indonesia. The trip was sponsored by the Federal Republic of Germany under the auspices of the Goethe Institute.

Grass and his wife, Ute, are accompanied on portions of their monthlong journey by the director Volker Schlondorff, who had recently made an award-winning film based on Grass’s novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), and by Schlondorff’s wife, the actress and director Margarethe von Trotta. As a gesture to them, and because Grass was obviously hoping to make a film about Asia with Schlondorff, the narrative is written in the style of notes for a potential film script.

Meanwhile, back in the Federal Republic of Germany, where an election campaign is in full swing, Grass’s archenemy, the ultraconservative Bavarian Franz Josef Strauss, has been delivering political speeches which Grass considers blatantly xenophobic and racist, distant echoes of the speeches of Adolf Hitler. Strauss warns that the Germans are dying out, that Turks and other foreigners are taking over the country, and that Germans must increase their birth rate.

Standing in Shanghai, surrounded by hordes of bicyclists, Grass tries to imagine what it would be like if this happened. What if the First and the Third Worlds were reversed? What if there were nearly a billion Germans and less than eighty million Chinese? How does German efficiency compare with Chinese efficiency? Could the Germans feed people as efficiently as they can make and sell weapons to kill them?

To help answer these questions, Grass creates two characters for his tentative film script, a married couple named Harm and...

(The entire section is 739 words.)