Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
The narrator, probably Günter Grass himself, born in 1927 in Danzig. The first-person narrator is on a sponsored lecture tour of China and India with his wife, Ute. A sympathetic observer, he nevertheless retains his commitment to German affairs and to the coming elections. The crowds in Shanghai lead him to imagine a grotesque world in which the Germans, in danger of dying out according to alarmist, patriotic politicians at home, would be as numerous as the Chinese. He finds a parallel between the stultification of China through the cultural revolution and that of Germany through Nazi ideology. He imagines his own situation if he had been born ten years earlier and had been active in the Nazi era. These speculations and others of their kind lead to the narrator conceiving the idea for a book or film to be called Headbirths—a reference to Zeus—and to be prepared with the help of film director Volker Schlöndorff. The author duly presents his characters but constantly returns to his own doings and preoccupations, including the West German elections with the politician Franz Joseph Strauss and the nuclear power plant near Broksdorf. These matters preoccupy characters Harm and Dörte Peters. The author also refers to personal affairs, such as the death of a fellow writer. Without doubt, the narrator tends to lose the thread, unlike Ute, who knits a scarf all the way through Asia.
Harm Peters (PEE-tehrs), a high school teacher from Itzehoe, Germany, born in 1945. He is Dörte’s husband. He has taken part in the student movements of the 1960’s, is an active member of his local socialist party, and now undertakes an Asian tour with Dörte in a spirit of social responsibility. He and Dörte are full of scruples about bringing a child into the world. The Asian tour does not help them to find a solution, nor do their phases of willingness in this matter often coincide. As Harm’s participation in this decision is, in any case, subordinate, the author tries to give him a compensatory subplot that involves a German liver sausage destined for a friend in Bali. The plot is abandoned, however, and Harm carries the sausage home. A bout of dysentery allows Harm to feel that he is sharing native life. His interests resemble those of the author, and his reform plans include allowing the Germans to die out, a scheme not generally acceptable to the high school students. Returning home in 1980, a year after his creator, Harm is sucked up in election issues.
Dörte Peters (DEHR-teh), a high school teacher from Itzehoe. She is blonde, was born in 1948, and is Harm’s wife. She and Harm are similarly principled. Her scruples about bringing a child into a violent, overcrowded, and polluted world pursue her on her Asian tour with her husband. Admirable as these scruples are, there is something ludicrous about her hope of finding spontaneity of decision in an overpopulated Indian fishing village. On Bali, she hangs a wishing slip on a tree in the native fashion and visits a temple cave full of darkness and bats. Finally, she even toys with the idea of picking up a gentle Balinese youth to be the anonymous father of her child, but this cinematic solution, from a Vicki Baum novel, is rejected as not in character. Undecided as ever, Dörte and her husband return to their native land and its concerns (for example, the nuclear power plant) and to their pupils’ questions.
Dr. Konrad Wenthien
Dr. Konrad Wenthien (VEHN-tee-ehn), a tour guide in Asia to the Sisyphus Tourist Bureau. He is a master of languages and full of expert lore extending from religious rites in Bombay to cockfighting in Bali. It is he who takes Harm and Dörte to spend a night in a Bombay (or Bangkok) slum. Although Dörte finds him a “creep,” it is to Wenthien that she turns in the matter of the Balinese beach boy. Wenthien’s answer to the central question of overpopulation is contained in ironic visions of a peaceful Asian invasion of Europe, or of an impassable wall.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382
Harm Peters, while clearly a fictional extension of Günter Grass himself, is not merely that. He is also an archetypal European: liberal, rational, well-informed, and concerned about such issues as world hunger, nuclear power, and arms merchandizing. Yet he is trapped by wants which have become needs: a rich diet, a large, warm home, an automobile, air conditioning, jet travel, and a child of his own. Impaled on the horns of this dilemma, his frustration grows until he begins to fantasize about becoming a dictator who solves all the world’s problems with the stroke of a pen. He becomes fascinated by violence, as he reveals when he enthusiastically films an illegal cockfight in Bali, ostensibly to show the local chapter of his political party back home how bread and circuses are used to keep the Asians in subjugation.
Dorte is a kind of European Everywoman: liberated and enlightened, yet susceptible to the most atavistic religious cults, such as that of the serpent goddess. She, too, is immobilized by frustration. She is unable to do rational things, to adopt an Asian child, for example, because she wants so badly to be big, round, and pregnant, like a cow, she says, and say “Moo!”
Dr. Konrad Wenthien is a figure imbued with almost supernatural powers, a demiurge—as Grass at one point refers to him—who instructs Dorte, the latter-day Eve, and Harm, the latter-day Adam, not to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, but to do something fruitful to help replenish and balance Earth’s resources. The godlike Dr. Wenthien is employed by the Sisyphus Travel Agency, a mythic name reflecting Grass’s belief that the fight against world hunger is comparable to rolling a great stone uphill, only to have it roll down again. Yet Grass also cites Albert Camus to show that Sisyphus is really a happy figure; his work, though strenuous and never-ending, is rewarding and important.
If there is a devil in this mythical configuration of characters it is Uwe Jensen, the archetypal European profiteer. He sells the products of the West, technological instruments of death, to underdeveloped Asian countries which so badly need enlightened help and technological instruments to preserve life: schools, water purification systems, sewage treatment plants, agricultural machines, medicines, and family planning.