Günter Grass
My Century
Trans. from the German by Michael Henry Heim
Toronto: Harcourt, 1999. Pp. 280. $25.00

Reviewed by Ronald Charles Epstein

During the 1930s, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler loudly proclaimed his "Thousand Year Reich." In today's chastened Germany, author Günter Grass (best known for his 1959 novel The Tin Drum) is content to claim his century for literature. This enterprise may be viewed as audacious, but the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature gives Grass enough prestige to support his guts or gall.

This novelist has approached life and literature with a healthy sense of the absurd, which has led some to view him as a court jester in a federal republic. He presents an impressive parade of witnesses in one hundred chapters: journalists, soldiers, Nazis, anti-Nazis, his resurrected mother, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Captain Sirius," and the author himself. Germany's self-appointed Fool also assumes the roles of documentary producer and animator. The author respects his readers' intelligence, displaying implicit confidence in their ability to glean historical insights from his vignettes. "1900" is an Imperial soldier's recollection of the brutal suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China to preserve the British opium trade, among other things. After the Germans' Japanese allies behead the pigtailed rebels, the protagonist takes home one of the pigtails as a trophy. Those who know twentieth-century history can discern the brutal precedent that he sets.

World War I is covered in a novel manner. Battlefield descriptions are left to Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)here the great antiwar novelist is introduced to Ernst Jünger, the more militaristic author of The Storm of Steel (1929), for some informal seminars supervised by Vreneli, a young Zurich scholar. The philosophical debates between the two authors are subtly augmented by the seamless insertion of a national/feminist subtext. The men drink fine Swiss wines, but "The nice Swiss Meidschi was served another glass of freshly squeezed orange juice." She views the elderly novelists' lame attempts to use Schwyzerdütsch as "amusing, but tiresome." The veteran author has honed his ability to navigate Europe's social undercurrents.

An autoworker, a police informant, and even an employee of the exiled Kaiser are deposed, enabling the reader to appreciate the culture and the political and economic crises of the 1920s. The reader learns about the ultranationalist underworld, north German radio stations, and Berlin nightlife. These sections are enlightening, but the "1927" segment may be confusing to some. The "Uncle Max" who invites the narrator's mother to sample the capital's attractions is "Max Kauer, who made a name for himself ... in music-hall circles with a ... magic act." The man's name and profession may lead one to believe that he is Jewish, but, in the late thirties, he finally takes her out on a "Strength-through-Joy" mountain excursionfor "Aryans" only.

Nazi oppressors and victims recall the 1930s. A storm trooper showcases the "brownshirt" mentality with his account of a 1932 party rally. Hitler's 1933 accession to power draws a gay Berlin gallery owner to watch a National Socialist parade with his lover and an elderly Jewish couple. The male lovers flee Germany, but the Jews remain. Grass's first Holocaust vignette concerns the efforts of Ehardt, an ambitious new official of the Oranienburg concentration camp, to stage the suicide of Erich Mühsam, an anarchist Jewish poet. Stahlkopf, the brutal guard, botches the job, leaving his superior to assess the damage to his career. The "New German Order" presents its victors with golden opportunities and its victims with unpalatable options.

World War II is relived during a journalists' convention on the North Sea island of Sylt. As the men rehash old battles, wartime ironies emerge. One of the war correspondents covered the 1967 Arab-Israeli War's "blitz victories" "as if the Six Day War were a continuation of the Barbarossa campaign." The photographer who took the famous photo of the little Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto is outraged that he did not get "a single measly mark" (103). The Holocaust casts its shadow, in one form or another.

The postwar segments include many autobiographical vignettes; Grass views his book as "My" Century. The individual accounts are fine, but readers who expect a greater variety of storytellers may view the author as egotistical. Shifting the focus to others improves this book. "1946" showcases Grass's feminism by honoring "The Berlin Rubble Woman!" who began the city's reconstruction. He points out that they were all "Rubble women. Not a man in the bunch" (110). Her hard work is rewarded with reunions in a renewed city. The author demonstrates his commitment to democratic values by creating an articulate underdog who eventually triumphs. Grass's wisdom provides treats for eager readers, but his excesses supply ammunition for exacting critics. He offers perspective, not absolution, enhancing German self-awareness and our understanding of Germany.