Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

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

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,...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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.