Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Headbirths, as the main word in its title implies, is an appeal for a new Adam and Eve, for mankind, to give birth not to more children but to radically new ideas, to a new world order, one which would transcend traditional nationalism, racism, and militarism. Its most important priority would be to feed the human race.

The early 1980’s, the beginning of George Orwell’s decade, as Grass chooses to call it, is the ideal time for Germany—the European country with the most infamous history of nationalism, racism, and the exportation of death—to transcend itself and begin to exist on a global scale for the first time, thus setting the example for other industrialized countries. Led in this effort by its authors and united under a National Endowment of German Culture envisioned by Grass’s idol, Willy Brandt, Germans should turn from war and harness their efficiency to help fight world hunger. They should stop worrying about dying out and should begin to prevent dying. They should stop worrying about having a child and begin to worry about children.

The last paragraph of the book is a symbolic cinematographic summary of Grass’s vision: Back home in Germany, as they drive along in their Volkswagen, Harm and Dorte almost hit a small Turkish boy who runs in front of their car. They manage to stop in time, and he and his friends, other Turkish boys, celebrate his survival with him.

Children then stream out from all the neighboring streets and yards, all of them foreigners: Indian, Chinese, and African, all happy children. Their numbers increase. They all celebrate with the little Turk who has been lucky once again. As the children cheerfully knock on the Volkswagen, the childless couple does not know what to say in German. The very language Grass uses to describe their speechlessness is pidginized, pulled away from standard German in the direction of the language of the children. It is a subtle beginning away from nationalism and toward globalism, but it is a beginning.