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.
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...
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