Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1439
The ldquo;headbirths” of the title refers to the way Harm and Dörte Peters spring from Günter Grass’s head, comparable to the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. Grass creates these people, in part, to counteract the decline in German population. He speculates on the gains and losses if the Germans were multiplying like the Chinese and the Chinese declining like the Germans. Grass, recalling the notorious Nazi demand for “living space,” argues that, since the Germans see themselves as overcrowded, they might as well let the myth become reality.
Within the novel (first published in German as Kopfgeburten: Oder, Die Deutschen Sterben Aus, 1981), Grass anticipates criticism of it on the grounds that this is one of his contemporary, political books, rather than one of his more popular “historical” ones. That argument is more than a little disingenuous. Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1962) and Der Butt (1977; The Flounder, 1978) are by no means apolitical. They are highly regarded because they have been formed with great care and contain plenty of “living space” where large issues can develop. The real problem with Headbirths is not the ephemeral nature of 1979 German politics and world issues, but the ephemeral nature of Grass’s treatment of characters and themes.
Grass cannot resist an imaginative historical trip with himself cast as a German ten years older than he actually was during World War II, pandering to the Nazis in order to get publication, serving in the army, becoming disillusioned at Stalingrad. Although a promising idea, it is not developed to the point of telling readers anything about Grass that they were not given in depth in earlier works, nor does it contribute anything to the basic themes of this novel. Current relations between East and West German writers and Grass’s “modest proposals” for governing a unified Germany are very much to the point of 1979 liberal malaise, but Grass’s criticism of the Nazi he might have been is merely awkward base-touching, with World War II as a pro forma prelude to Germany in 1979.
Grass views the division between the two Germanies as an arbitrary piece of foolishness perpetrated by the Soviet Union and the United States. He proposes a Germany united by a cultural history museum at the Berlin Wall, with a switch of economic systems between the two Germanies every ten years to relax the East and burn fat off the West. He proposes an end to compulsory education, the civil service, and all German births, while at the same time advocating the establishment of a tax on Church property and of a citizen’s militia to allow Germany to take control of its own gloomy destiny. In the death of his friend, novelist Nicholas Born, and of a radical-gone-tame, Rudi Dutschke, Grass sees signs of the passing of German artistic and politically liberal leadership.
While the cumulative effect of these whimsical set-pieces contributes to the shapelessness of this novel, it also pushes Grass forward as the central character. By presenting Harm Peters’ reactions to Grass’s own “modest proposals,” the novelist emphasizes Peters’ lesser role in the novel. Interestingly, Grass’s wife, Ute Grass, does not overshadow the fictional Dörte Peters. Harm Peters is a foil for both Grass and Dörte; Ute Grass does not participate in the action in any vital way.
Volker Schlöndorff, director of the film The Tin Drum, is another foil for Grass. Grass has a good grasp of the relationship between filmmaking and writing. A short book full of striking images makes a better film than a long book full of authorial narration and verbosity, but the vision of an author self-consciously writing a novel in which his primary expressed concern is roughing out a film scenario cannot be wholly satisfying to readers, especially since this book does not even do that wholeheartedly, but relies heavily on the very kind of authorial asides that are least filmable.
A summary of this brief novel would whet appetites for something that is not there, something not developed much beyond the summary stage. Harm and Dörte’s central struggle is whether or not to have a baby. The familiar liberal arguments for and against are made poignant by the background of world hunger and overpopulation. Indian slum dwellers do not understand what the Peterses mean when they explain that each of them sometimes wants to have a child but never both at the same time. Balinese fertility rites make this kind of liberalism seem all the more stiff and German. Objective correlatives are provided by the pregnant cat, whose kittens the Peterses feel obligated to drown, and by the liver sausage sweating inside its safe wrappings but becoming dubiously edible as the Peterses drag it through the tropics with them. Grass considers and rejects building a spy thriller around the sausage, but he likes the symbolism of a snake suddenly coming from beneath Dörte’s skirt in Bali and a bat seemingly seeking Dörte wherever she goes.
More indirectly, the Peterses’ indecision about having a baby is a symptom of liberal inertia. Nuclear power is both good and bad; mechanized farming in China would be efficient but would create unemployment. The most vivid, thematically unifying scene occurs when Dörte has an extended hallucination in which Harm “goes native” before her eyes, defecating in the street and squatting to chew betel nut, thus becoming indistinguishable from the Indian slum dwellers.
The most ineffective scene occurs when Harm and Dörte project themselves as the stars of a John Wayne film they see on their plane, and Grass laments the prohibitive costs of reshooting. The most casual inquiries on Grass’s part would have revealed advances in dubbing that are more effective for fantasy purposes than reshooting. This passage casts doubt on Grass’s insistence that he is doing a scenario.
The final scene is effective: Harm nearly runs over a Turkish boy but is able to stop the car in time, thus affirming his desire to let other societies increase as Germany decreases. The development of the population motif is obscured throughout the novel, however, by Grass’s presentation of his views on the state of literature. These are worth knowing in themselves, but they diffuse the energy of the narrative. The inability of postwar writers to measure up to Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht is slipped in as the subject of Grass’s lectures to the Chinese. A Chinese writer responds to that notion with what, to him (and, apparently, to Grass), is the analogous difficulty of writing about normal experiences of love and sex in a China that represses and outlaws normal experience.
Further on, Grass compares the role of Nazi-era writers, as being precursors to that of postwar writers, with the Chinese acceptance of a favorite playwright of the “Gang of Four” as a major writer. These superficial notions are not pursued with a view toward deeper insights into Germany or China.
If the basic notion that this book is a novel is abandoned, then the Peterses can be viewed as merely a collective device that enables Grass to present scenes from his real trip and the accompanying reflections. In that case, however, there would be no reason for Grass to single out as he does certain experiences of the Peterses, insisting that these are “real” and based on his own experience. The reader is left with a mixed body of real and false information about serious issues.
Were Bombay slums leveled to provide recreation facilities for nuclear plant workers? Are there really “Sisyphus Tours” for those who wish to see the real world and spend a night with slum-dwellers? Is the gulf between non-traveling Germans worried about street lights and bicycle prices and traveling Germans worried about Indonesia more or less as depicted? Is this information put forward primarily to provide entertainment, to provoke indignation, or to evoke some other response?
It is not a question of “trivializing” world hunger: any writer who provides a mix of serious issues and entertainment can be so charged by knee-jerk readers. Yet by allowing his book space, Angus Wilson in As If by Magic (1973), for example, did a more convincing job both of entertainment and instruction on world hunger than Grass does here.
Every writer has only so much sand in his hourglass. Writer-teacher-critic-citizen-traveler-celebrity will never be in balance. Many writers dread the thought that a book will carry some subtle aura of having been begun on planes and in hotels. Grass disingenuously flaunts the obviously “off the top” nature of this book, and that is a disappointment.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124
The Atlantic. CCXLIX, April, 1982, p. 110.
Commonweal. CIX, July 16, 1982, p. 409.
Hayman, Ronald. Günter Grass, 1985.
Irving, John. Review in Saturday Review. IX (March, 1982), p. 59.
Lawson, Richard H. “Headbirths: Or, The Germans Are Dying Out,” in Günter Grass, 1985.
Library Journal. March 15, 1982, p. 650.
Nation. CCXXXIV, April 24, 1982, p. 502.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, March 14, 1982, p. 11.
Rohlfs, J.W. “Chaos or Order? Günter Grass’s Kopfgeburten,” in Critical Essays on Günter Grass, 1987. Edited by Patrick O’Neill.
Ryan, Judith. “‘Into the Orwellian Decade’: Günter Grass’s Dystopian Trilogy,” in Critical Essays on Günter Grass, 1987. Edited by Patrick O’Neill.
Times Literary Supplement. April 23, 1982, p. 455.
Updike, John. Review in The New Yorker. LVIII (June 14, 1982), p. 129.
West Coast Review of Books. VIII, May, 1982, p. 25.