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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

Crabwalk blends together factual and fictitious narratives of the killing of Nazi figure Wilhelm Gustloff and the sinking of the ship of the same name (the Wilhelm Gustloff ). While these tragedies themselves are real, the Pokriefke family is the author's invention, created to illustrate how people might have responded...

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Crabwalk blends together factual and fictitious narratives of the killing of Nazi figure Wilhelm Gustloff and the sinking of the ship of the same name (the Wilhelm Gustloff). While these tragedies themselves are real, the Pokriefke family is the author's invention, created to illustrate how people might have responded to and made sense of these traumatic events.

In the book, both Paul and his mother survive the shipwreck, and Paul's mother urges to devote time to writing a fictional account of the experience, weaving a narrative tapestry over the senseless tragedy. Indeed, Paul himself signifies a recovery from trauma: he was born just as his mother escaped in a torpedo boat.

At the same time, the novel shows how memorialization can go awry when truth is distorted. Paul's estranged son, Konny, becomes a neo-Nazi figure, substituting his own identity into that of Gustloff in a story on the internet that recapitulates his execution by a Jew named David Frankfurter. He ends up deciding to symbolically kill a man who seems Jewish (he actually is not) in a graveyard after witnessing the man spit on Gustloff's grave. Thus, while Paul uses the power of storytelling to investigate and explain the shipwreck, Konny uses it to retreat into a derealized world and negate the possibility of forming his own identity.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1756

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 lots of personality still, towering over Crabwalkdespite her diminutive stature. Paul has no personality, which is one reason he makes a good newspaper reporter, jokes Grass. Tulla is furious at Paul because he refuses to join her and bear witness to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff—until now. He still cannot make the kind of witness that she wants, if only because he cannot help giving both sides of the story. Paul is so colorless that the narrative suffers until the reader realizes how consciously Grass has resisted making it a novel. Tulla and “Grass” pull it toward the novelistic, while Paul and his son Konrad, though not working together, resist that pull. Paul says, “No matter how my employer [‘Grass’] is pressuring me to present a series of individual fates, to convey the entire situation with sweeping narrative equanimity . . . I can only report what has been quoted elsewhere from the testimony of survivors.” The consequence is to reduce “Grass” to a comic figure in the novelistic episodes, bickering with Paul, who wonders if this old man, so obviously past his prime, might have been one of his mother’s lovers.

“Grass,” for his part, cannot believe that “his” Tulla has turned out the way she has, a banal Communist Party functionary and a German nationalist. To this, Paul says, “The old man doesn’t really know Mother. And I? Do I know her any better? . . . Mother is impossible to read.” Tulla, who still has some surprises left, meanwhile seems to be trying to write the novel for “Grass.” Paul even says as much. “But he’s not the one forcing me to do this, it’s Mother. And it’s only because of her that the old man [‘Grass’] is poking his nose in; she’s forcing him to force me” to write this book.

Though Grass is having lots of postmodernist fun, “Grass” has given up trying to write. He should have been the one to tell the story of the ship, its building and sinking, because he, “Grass,” had written “that mighty tome, Dog Years.” He just had not been able to do so; he is done with the past. “But now,” says Paul, “the old man, [‘Grass’] who has worn himself out writing, thinks he has found in me someone who has no choice but to stand in for him and report,” meaning to report, for instance, that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was a tragedy but no crime.

The life of Aleksander Marinesko, the Soviet U-boat captain, is only sketched here. Before the sinking, he did not have a stellar past, and he will have a Siberia-bound future. The book does not devote much attention to him because he is a minor, almost comic character who does not bear much responsibility.

The Russians did not know how many civilians were on the Wilhelm Gustloff. The ship was not properly marked as a refugee ship. In addition, there were soldiers on the Wilhelm Gustloff as well as antiaircraft guns (one of which fell off during the sinking and smashed into a lifeboat). Much of the crew was not properly trained, and those who were died in the first few minutes. Ten of the lifeboats were missing and had been replaced with smaller rowboats. The four captains onboard fought among themselves about which course to take, and the worst was taken: straight ahead with running lights on. The tragedy was compounded by many factors.

Paul cannot bear witness in the manner that his mother expects. He can only report. He spends the whole book running around talking to people, yet he never speaks up for himself. He never speaks to his son, Konrad, until the latter is in prison. Even then, Paul cannot speak out or take a strong stand in relation to Konrad. This serves as an indictment of Paul and Paul’s generation, no doubt, and yet Grass surely sees the danger of taking too extreme a position, though he casts this danger in terms of a comic, generational dialectic. Exaggerated and literary, “Grass” and Tulla battle with colorless, irresolute Paul, and the result is the neo-Nazi and ideological Konrad, the most dangerous of all. Says Paul, “Of all those who spoke, only my son was speaking his mind.”

One of the main themes here is that information does not matter as much in the world as ideas do. Most of the time, ideas do not lead to enlightenment and understanding, but to ideology, which can then dominate facts quite easily. Where do people find their ideas and facts today? Grass obviously thinks it is the Internet. The Web site that Paul finds early in the book provides much information for the book. More important is the running argument between “Wilhelm” and “David” which gradually emerges from the Web site “chatter” to take center stage.

Paul soon discovers that the young neo-Nazi who calls himself Wilhelm and maintains the site devoted to Gustloff is none other than his own son. It is Tulla who has filled Konrad’s head with the story of the “crime” of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Now Konrad has become the witness that she always wanted his father to be. Konrad has picked up her intransigence, too, and has none of the doubts that hamper the speech of his father’s generation. Paul has not seen his son for years, and he does not see him here till after Konrad meets with—and shoots—Wolfgang “David” Stremplin at the shrine to Wilhelm Gustloff in Schwerin. Sadly but predictably, it is not “David,” the victim, who becomes the martyr but Konrad, the imprisoned shooter and the hate-monger. The last line of the book is, “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.”

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 12 (February, 15, 2003): 1047-1048.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 1 (January, 2003): 11-12.

Library Journal 128, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 154.

The Nation 276, no. 12 (March 31, 2003): 31-33.

The New Leader 86, no. 2 (March/April, 2003): 24-25.

New Statesman 132, no. 4632 (April 7, 2003): 54.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 10 (June 12, 2003): 24-26.

The New York Times Book Review 152, 52501 (June 1, 2003): 18.

The New Yorker 79 (April 21, 2003): 186.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 9 (March 3, 2003): 51.

Time 161, no. 17 (April 28, 2003): 70.

The Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 2003, p. 22.

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