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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739

Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out is a fictionalized account of Günter Grass’s reading tour of China in the fall of 1979, with stops in Singapore and Indonesia. The trip was sponsored by the Federal Republic of Germany under the auspices of the Goethe Institute.

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Grass and his wife, Ute, are accompanied on portions of their monthlong journey by the director Volker Schlondorff, who had recently made an award-winning film based on Grass’s novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961), and by Schlondorff’s wife, the actress and director Margarethe von Trotta. As a gesture to them, and because Grass was obviously hoping to make a film about Asia with Schlondorff, the narrative is written in the style of notes for a potential film script.

Meanwhile, back in the Federal Republic of Germany, where an election campaign is in full swing, Grass’s archenemy, the ultraconservative Bavarian Franz Josef Strauss, has been delivering political speeches which Grass considers blatantly xenophobic and racist, distant echoes of the speeches of Adolf Hitler. Strauss warns that the Germans are dying out, that Turks and other foreigners are taking over the country, and that Germans must increase their birth rate.

Standing in Shanghai, surrounded by hordes of bicyclists, Grass tries to imagine what it would be like if this happened. What if the First and the Third Worlds were reversed? What if there were nearly a billion Germans and less than eighty million Chinese? How does German efficiency compare with Chinese efficiency? Could the Germans feed people as efficiently as they can make and sell weapons to kill them?

To help answer these questions, Grass creates two characters for his tentative film script, a married couple named Harm and Dorte Peters. In the film, they also make a journey to Asia. They travel later than Grass does, in the summer of 1980, and they will go where there are slums and starvation: to India, where Grass had traveled in 1975, as well as to Thailand and Indonesia.

The Peterses are both former 1960’s radicals, now secondary-school teachers of foreign languages and geography and hence well-read in such matters as global population trends. Through them, Grass exposes his readers to the facts and figures of widespread poverty and world hunger. Grass provides the Peterses—and his readers—with an almost omniscient tour guide, Dr. Konrad Wenthien, who offers further informed commentary on the problems of the world.

The couple have been trying to decide whether to have a child. Concerned about nuclear war and the building of a nuclear power plant near their home in Germany, Dorte has already had one abortion. Their experiences in the slums of Asia only add to the arguments on the side of remaining childless.

Primitive rituals associated with various mother goddesses they encounter, however, awaken deep maternal instincts in Dorte. Over Harm’s rational objections, she throws her birth-control pills into the bat-infested fertility shrine of a serpent goddess. Later, Harm yields to his paternal instincts and throws more of the pills into the toilet. They consider adopting an Asian child, but they fear that it would be treated badly by other children in Germany, so they return from their trip with the problem unresolved.

One detail of Grass’s trip which becomes a subplot in the tentative film script concerns a liverwurst which Grass delivers to a German diplomat residing in China. In this episode’s fictionalized transmogrification for the film script, Harm tries—unsuccessfully—to deliver the sausage to an old schoolmate named Uwe Jensen, who is now living in Bali. In the film script, Harm’s mysterious friend appears to be an arms merchant who has made a fortune smuggling weapons for use in local conflicts.

Meanwhile, Grass tells a bit more about his reading tour. In addition to sections of his most recent novel, Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, 1978), he reads a paper about his efforts to establish ties between East German and West German authors. He argues that it is the authors, perhaps more than any other Germans, who have been able to transcend their differences and make an attempt at a cultural reunification of their fatherland.

At the end of the book, with tongue in cheek, Grass wonders what would have happened if his bugbear, Franz Josef Strauss, had become a writer, rather than a politician, something which would have allowed him to give his strange fantasy free rein without endangering the world.

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