Günter Grass, one of the most important writers in post war Germany, died in April this year-see the Guardian obituary for details of his life and work. In my German book group we decided to read a novel of his to mark his death and for reasons of brevity and accessibility went for ‘Im Krebsgang’, which 2 of us had read after its publication in 2002. The English translation by Krishna Winston was published in 2003. One of my concerns on rereading was whether the novel would stand a second reading: would it still seem relevant?
The novel deals with the sinking of the German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, on 30th January 1945, torpedoed by a Russian submarine, and the resultant loss of life. The numbers of lives lost has always been hard to quantify, because it was carrying thousands of civilians who had boarded at the last minute fleeing from the Russian advance from the east, many of whom were not registered officially as passengers. In addition there were U boat crew members, naval women and Croatian volunteers- a mixture then of civilian and naval personnel lying somewhere between 6,600 and 10,600. There were estimated to be approximately 1,300 survivors and so the losses lay somewhere between 5,300 and 9,300. Grass notes more than once in the book that 4,000 of these were thought to be children. So how is it that we the public knew little, if anything, about this terrible tragedy until the publication of this novel, when we are conversant with all of life’s rich tapestry lost on the Titanic, from star crossed lovers to stuffed teddy bears? And how should the story be told? Seeking the answer to this question provides a kind of lens through which the tragedy of the ship is seen, a meta narrative looking at how we write about history and what happens when historical events are suppressed- and the title itself, ‘Im Krebsgang’ refers to the narrator’s decision to approach his subject matter sideways on, scuttling up to it like a crab.
The novel is narrated from the point of view of Paul Pofrieke, born on the 30th January, just after his mother had been saved from the sinking Wilhelm Gustloff. He is a journalist and in middle age starts to write a report on the ship going down, partly after years of nagging by his mother, partly prompted by a character called ‘der Alte’ aka Günter Grass. In his investigations he comes across a website called http://www.blutzeuge.de with a huge amount of information on it, mostly of a right wing nationalist bent. This website has details of the original Nazi hero, Wilhelm Gustloff, for whom the ship was named, when he was assassinated by the Jewish David Frankfurter, and it is around this character that the website focuses its shrill nationalism and antisemitism. The narrator is horrified to discover that the site is being run by his son, Konrad. He has had an arms length relationship with Konrad, separating from his mother, Gabi, and failing to establish a meaningful bond with him. Both parents in fact are depicted as woolly liberals in matters of child raising as they allow Konrad to go to live with his grandmother, Paul’s mother, in Schwerin, at the age of 16, where he is really able to let rip with his ideas on the website- and worse.
The repercussions of the disaster for individual families and for the nation as a whole are explored in the novel. Paul’s upbringing and family relationships are burdened with his mother’s traumatic experience of survival : she is a tough working class woman who rolls her sleeves up in the newly created East German Republic to lead a successful brigade of female carpenters.Like many of Grass’ female characters, she is defined by her trade-the smell of bone glue hangs around her perpetually-yet she exudes sex appeal. Grass comes back again and again to her shock of white hair, turned white within minutes on the night of the disaster and her achingly sad refrain about the ‘Kinderchen alle koppunter’-‘them poor little ones all floating head down’. Paul, representing the next generation, comes over as a passionless liberal, something of a drifter, brought up without a father, living in both the East and then West Berlin, writing as a journalist for papers with a broad range of political positions, drifting into and then out of his relationship with Gabi. The next generation is Konrad, the nationalist or Rechtsradikaler and we are asking ourselves from the moment we find out he is behind the website, to what extent his parents and grandmother have contributed to his views and behaviour.
But this question is not of course just relevant to one family, but to a whole generation. The disaster of the Wilhelm Gustloff was hidden after it happened for fear it would sap public morale, and interestingly, from the Russian perspective, the successful torpedoing of the German ship was not really recognised until the 1960s. Grass refers also to the general silence about the sufferings of the millions of civilians driven from their homes by the Russians coming from the East at the end of the war-these Germans are known as ‘die Vertriebenen’ He puts this silence down to the shame and guilt of the German population when they became aware of the extent of the Nazi crimes, which made them reluctant at that time to lay any claim to suffering for themselves. This gap, this failure to speak honestly about such matters, to work through them, left the field wide open for appropriation by the Nationalists and the right wing discourse which we see in the next generation, in Konrad and his website.
The use of the metanarrative keeps us constantly aware of the production of the report and the difficulty of arriving at any one true version of history. What sources does Paul go to for information about the disaster and how should they be used? He mentions the book by Wilhelm Schön, the purser who survived and then became persona non grata because of his friendship with the Russians. The 50s feature film, ‘Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen’ is criticised for its romantic content but praised for its portrayal of blind panic on board. The narrator is excoriating about the website content, for its political stance, but also for its propagandist simplicity and falsification of facts- and one can’t help thinking this is Grass railing about the quality of material on the Internet in general. The narrator is keen to show a rounded and unpartisan version of events and his agenda to give weight to all three men , Wilhelm Gustloff, David Frankfurter and the captain of the Russian submarine which torpedoes the ship, Alexander Marinesko, is an exploration of this possibility. And the role of fiction in telling the story is played with too: ‘the old man’ advises strongly against the narrator explaining to his readers what is going on in the head of Konrad when he is standing trial after the final twist in the story-we see him through the eyes of the narrator, and never from Konrad’s point of view, so any inner life apart from his nationalist convictions is left to the reader’s imagination.
So the novel plays with ways of communicating, of telling the story, in its reportage within the novel and the account of the sinking of the ship and the ghastly dying and slaughter at sea is an emotionally powerful centre of the novel. Yet there seems to be a lack of emotion on the part of the adults, especially Paul and Gabi, in reaction to the violent act at the end of the book and what happens to Konrad. Is this Grass’ intention, seeking to show the detachment of inadequate parents, or simply my reaction having read ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver where quite a different emotional charge is described? But this is a minor quibble, given the skilful conveying of what happened to the Wilhelm Gustloff, the exploration of the challenges involved in telling the story and of the danger of suppressing historical events. And to return to my thinking when picking up this book again, the continuing relevance of the novel and its message cannot be in doubt in a world where the use of the Internet to convey political propaganda and to find support for causes involving hatred, violence and misogyny is a global phenomenon, spiralling out of control. In view of this it is more important than ever that we should engage with our personal past and national history with honesty and integrity- and to pay due respect to those great writers like Günter Grass for whom that questioning of history is an essential part of their work.