Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

Günter Grass is a novelist of international stature. He achieved his breakthrough with the publication of his first novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum 1961). Hailed by some critics as a stunning success and a promising sign of the rebirth of German letters after a devastating war, others condemned...

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Günter Grass is a novelist of international stature. He achieved his breakthrough with the publication of his first novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum 1961). Hailed by some critics as a stunning success and a promising sign of the rebirth of German letters after a devastating war, others condemned the novel as voyeuristic, obscene, and blasphemous. Despite the initial, fierce criticism, The Tin Drum has stood the test of time and is generally acknowledged as Grass’s masterpiece; the novel also served as the basis of the screenplay of an Oscar-winning film under the direction of Volker Schlöndorff. When Grass received the Nobel Prize in Literature 1999, The Tin Drum was cited as his major literary achievement.

In The Tin Drum as well as in subsequent works, Grass’s birthplace, the city of Danzig, plays a significant role. In fact, the import of Danzig for Grass’s work has been compared to that of Yoknapatawpha County for William Faulkner and Dublin for James Joyce. The irretrievable loss of Danzig as a consequence of World War II, when the former German city became the Polish city Gdask, has been a powerful stimulus for Grass’s literary imagination. Although especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s Grass had considerably extended the geographic range of his fiction, he returned to the topic of Danzig and Gdask after the felling of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, and German reunification the following year.

In Crabwalk, two of the principal characters—one fictional and one real—hail from Danzig. The first of these characters, the memorable Tulla Pokriefke, appears in two works of fiction in Grass’s Danziger Trilogie, 1980 (Danzig Trilogy, 1987); the second, the old man, is a thinly disguised self-portrait of the author himself. The old man repeatedly professes both his keen interest as well as his competence in all matters related to Danzig, but he is too tired to tackle such a formidable subject as the history of the Wilhlem Gustloff.

Hence, the old man hires Paul Pokriefke, a mediocre journalist with an inclination to shirk his responsibility as both a storyteller and a father, who serves as his ghostwriter and whom he advises in literary matters. Thus, the old man opines that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff provides the material for a novella, a genre of prose fiction that, according to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s concise definition, entails a form of narrative that is based on an actual but unheard-of or extraordinary event (“eine sich ereignete, unerhörte Begebenheit”). Indeed, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, which is interwoven with the fictional stories of three generations of Pokriefkes, proves to be a suitable subject for a novella in that it constituted a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Only about twelve hundred people survived the sinking, including approximately one hundred infants, young children, and teenagers—a death toll that far exceeded that of the sinking of the Titanic, usually considered the epitome of maritime disasters.

Grass follows the conventions of the novella by placing the sinking of the ship at the center of the narrative; however, he deviates from other standard literary techniques associated with the novella, such as a tight, linear, and chronological narrative plot or the prevalence of an objective viewpoint. Rather than sequentially narrating the biographies of the three historical personages—Wilhelm Gustloff, David Frankfurter, and Alexander Marinesko—the narrator opts for the seemingly cumbersome approach of a narrative “crabwalk.” Crabs appear to move backward, but they actually scuttle sideways and, hence, move forward rapidly; so, too, does the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff unfold.

The novella’s reception by critics was mostly positive, in contrast to the reception of Grass’s earlier major novel Ein weites Feld (1995; Too Far Afield, 2000), considered to be highly critical of German reunification. Indeed, Grass had strenuously objected to reunification on the questionable grounds that the legacy of Auschwitz forbade a merger of the two postwar German states. In contrast, Crabwalk was widely perceived as an indication of a change in or even reversal of Grass’s previous stance because of its clearly drawn lines between perpetrators and victims. At the center of the new “victimization” discourse in Europe in the late 1990’s was the flight and expulsion of more than ten million Germans from former German territories such as Pomerania and Silesia, as well as East and West Prussia. Another major topic was the indiscriminate area-bombing of German cities by the Allied Powers during World War II.

Grass’s long-time reluctance to address the controversial subject of the expulsions is reflected both in narrator Paul’s resistance to writing the story of the sinking of the ship and in the old man blaming himself for not having dealt with the story sooner; the old man calls his avoidance a “regrettable omission” that amounts to a veritable failure. Although the topic of flight and expulsion remained a part of public discourse (and Grass had referred to it in The Tin Drum), the normalization of German affairs as a result of reunification in 1990 and the emergence of the Berlin Republic in 1994 provided a more hospitable climate for discussing controversial subjects such as German culpability and suffering. However, there are clear indications that the memorialization of German victimhood in literary texts as well as other media could remain problematic.

The novella ends on a resigned as well as cautionary note when the narrator expresses his dismay about the seemingly unending right-wing propaganda on the Web in which Germans are depicted as victims. Such a problematic perception tends to ignore the lessons of the past.

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