(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

With a simple question, Günter Grass and his alter ego, “Günter Grass,” plunge the reader into the tortured postwar German psyche. When the character with no name, who is obviously “Grass,” asks the narrator, Paul Pokriefke, “Why only now?” the book begins its many restless, unsettling trips back and forth over the previous fifty years of German history, revealing a damaged postwar generation which is being pushed aside by something that might even be worse. Now, however, Paul has a story to tell, a story that “Grass” did not want told thirty years ago. “Grass” says, “Never . . . should his generation have kept silent about such misery, merely because its own sense of guilt was so overwhelming . . . with the result that they had abandoned the topic to the right wing.”

The topic they should not have kept silent about was the sinking on January 30, 1945, of the German refugee boat the Wilhelm Gustloff by the Soviet U-boat S-13, labeled “the murder vessel.” Six thousand to ten thousand people died, mostly women and children—“floating in them bulky life jackets, their little legs poking up in the air.” Little thought was given to Soviet culpability in the case, but it was always assumed this was because of a German sense of guilt, not because of Russian innocence.

January 30 also happens to be the birthday of Wilhelm Gustloff, as well as the day in 1933 when the Nazis took power in Germany. Grass plays with the providential nature of these events and has more fun by not only having Paul born on the night of January 30, 1945, but also in the middle of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

“Why only now?” means, most simply, why has Paul waited all this time to write about that night? His mother, Tulla, has been wanting him to bear witness all her life, but the only result has been to make life with her so unbearable that Paul moves out when he is sixteen.

Though the sinking of the boat is the set piece of the novel, the work also covers the historical assassination of Gustloff in 1936 and the fictional assassination of Wolfgang “David” Stremplin in 1996. These three acts, as well as the lives of the people involved, are not followed in a direct line but are revealed the way a crab walks, sneaking “up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly.”

The first strand of story is that of Gustloff, the Nazi who was shot and killed in 1936 by David Frankfurter. As throughout the book, Grass makes fine use of his trademark understated irony: “Sickly though [Frankfurter] was, his hand had proved steady.” Because this shooting took place in Davos, Switzerland, Frankfurter escapes Nazi “justice,” and so he survives the war and can later move to Israel. Gustloff, however, becomes an instant martyr to the Nazi cause, and a cruise ship is named after him. This same ship, whose history the book follows, is later brought into commission as a refugee ship in 1945.

Paul has happened upon a Web site dedicated to Wilhelm Gustloff, born in Schwerin, Germany, in 1895. Schwerin also happens to be, in another one of the book’s “coincidences,” the city where Tulla settles at the end of World War II and raises her son, Paul, until he scampers off to West Berlin at age sixteen. In Berlin, he is given child support by Harry Leibenau until he is old enough to leave school; he later becomes a reporter.

Tulla and Harry, as well as several minor characters, appear in earlier Grass novels, Hundejahre (1963; Dog Years, 1965) in particular. In that novel, Harry is in love with Tulla, who cruelly takes advantage of him. She does the same here, telling Harry that Paul is his son so he will pay support, although she really has no idea who Paul’s father is. Even during the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, during which her hair turns white, she uses her “certain something,” as well as her cruelty, to ensure her survival. After the war, the smell of glue follows her from her father’s shop in Dog Years to the Soviet furniture factory in Crabwalk, where she prospers and then manages to profit from the breakup of the company during the reunification of the Germanys.

The outrageous Tulla has...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)