Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873

Dog Years is the third work of the Danzig trilogy, following Günter Grass’s first novel, Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), and his novella Katz und Maus (1961; Cat and Mouse, 1963). All three works revolve around the former free state where the author was born and raised, and all deal roughly with the same time period: the years leading up to World War II, the war itself, and the years immediately following the war. A sprawling, dense, difficult work, Dog Years is a novel of multiple layers that—prefiguring the theme of the author’s later confessional memoir, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (2006; Peeling the Onion, 2007)—adds depth, texture, and flavor with each layer penetrated.

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At its most basic, Dog Years is a rollicking tale of sweeping dimensions in the manner of François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, or Jonathan Swift. By turns deadly serious, playfully philosophical, and mordantly satirical, the novel is first a study of interacting character types. The sensitive artist (Eddi), self-absorbed actor (Walter), naïve poet-playwright (Harry), bubbly ballerina (Jenny), stoic miller (Anton), and the rest are profoundly and individually affected by events over which they have no control. Each is swept up into the prewar fervor of a Teutonic military renaissance under the Nazis, where extraordinary measures become everyday occurrences. Each is churned in the horror of a global conflict that begins triumphantly and ends disastrously for Germany. Survivors are spit into a ruined wasteland and left to fend for themselves. The novel contains passages that have become Grass’s trademarks: vivid description and startling brutality.

Grass also uses symbols in the novel. Three primary motifs recur: rivers, scarecrows, and dogs. For Grass, rivers represent ancient constants—indifferent to changing borders—in a fast-moving modern world. Equally important to the plot is the Vistula River, which has a real presence: It delivers the raw materials (dead animals, discarded clothing, broken furniture, and sodden paper that wash up on the dikes) for Eddi’s first crude, but strangely effective, scarecrows.

Eddi’s scarecrows insightfully capture some brainless aspect of human behavior that is incompatible with nature. Birds instinctively sense the scarecrows’ built-in destructive essence and stay away, saving themselves by obviating the need for harsher crop-preserving methods such as nets, guns, or poison. Dogs, particularly the half-wolf line of black German shepherds in the novel, represent a meeting point between humans and nature. Senta, Harras, and Prinz all carry the blood of both wild and domesticated animals and, though usually faithful, can be unpredictable because of this mix.

Dog Years is an especially apt title for the novel, as Grass plays off the words in numerous ways. First, Germany is “going to the dogs” (that is, it is deteriorating, becoming as unruly as a pack of wild animals). Second, at the height of anti-Semitism, those considered inferior were insulted by being compared to dogs, which will eat anything, even their own waste. Third, the war starts in 1939, just after the dog days of summer (a time of stagnation, when animals are most likely to become rabid). Fourth, a person who lives in ease and comfort is said to enjoy a dog’s life. Fifth, those persons who survive do so with dogged determination. The term “dog years” reckons seven years of human life as equivalent to one year in a dog’s life. In the novel, Grass compares the relative maturity between the two species. As a related point of historical interest, Adolf Hitler did own a German shepherd named Prinz in the early 1920’s; Hitler’s favorite dog during his years as führer was named Blondi.

The history, governments, politics, and philosophies of Germany and Danzig are woven throughout the novel as well (Grass supplies several pages of endnotes detailing many of his references). Students of folklore will see a continuous theme of mythology in the novel, especially concerning barbaric pagan Baltic gods—Perkunos, Pilollos, and Potrimpos in particular—reanimated in Eddi’s scarecrows. The scarecrows represent the bloodthirsty cult of Nazism. Readers interested in mass psychology will find considerable material of interest, as Dog Years is founded on an examination of the German psyche. The novel demonstrates how the national character could permit the possibility of tyrant worship; how it could allow the disenfranchisement, persecution, and elimination of undesirables; how it could encourage the denial of the senses (ignoring railroad cars crammed full of doomed humans, smoke from the fires of crematoriums at concentration camps, and mountains of human bones); and how it could adapt to collective guilt in the wake of the Holocaust.

Grass also employs rich language in Dog Years. In telling his many-faceted story, he pays homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) by using some of the Irish author’s techniques, such as “jamming words together” or mimicking real speech by cutting dialogue midsentence so the reader can mentally fill in missing words. Grass also mixes slang, profanity, distinctly German expressions, puns, and other forms of wordplay. His passages range from choppy and colloquial to eloquent and poetic. His tone alternates from stark realism to surrealism. In style and substance, Dog Years offers something for every taste, though the intensity of the flavor will vary according to the discrimination of the individual reader.

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Critical Context