Book review: ‘The Box’ by Günter Grass
Tales from the Darkroom
Günter Grass, translated from the German by Krishna Winston
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 208 pp., $23
Great worldwide fame came to Günter Grass in 1959 with his first work, the enduring novel “The Tin Drum,” and, ever since, his successive works — including “Dog Years,” “The Rat,” “The Flounder,” “Too Far Afield” and “Crabwalk” — have been inevitably compared to that daring masterpiece. No matter how these works have been received, however, one thing has remained certain: They established a highly visible moral claim for him as the great rememberer of those terrible Nazi years, which many of his countrymen chose to forget.
Then, in his 2006 memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” Grass confessed to having finally remembered serving in the SS during World War II after all. Finally remembered? It cast a pall on his reputation that he worries about in intimate detail in his new book, “The Box: Tales from the Darkroom.” On first impression, the book is a lighthearted, tender admission, told in fictional form, that he is just a father who is curious about what his eight children think about him. Each of the nine chapters follows the same pattern:
“Once upon a time there was a father, who having grown old in years, called together his sons and daughters — four, five, six, eight in all. For a long time they resisted, but in the end they granted his wish. Now they are seated around a table and all begin to talk at once, all products of their father’s whimsy, using words he has put in their mouths…”
At each of these gatherings, the reader can count on two things: a meal is served, and an enigmatic character named Marie is always present. She owns an old-fashioned box camera that is magical: It is able to capture past, present and future. We’re told that she has been a constant presence in the children’s lives: housekeeper, babysitter and minder of the father. Her photographs inspire Grass’ imagination. Grass describes his marriages with divorces glossed over — painful feelings are held at a discreet distance.
Despite each of their stories, the children — named Pat, Jorsch, Lena, Taddel, Nana, Jasper, Paulchen, Lara — remain one-dimensional even though, outwardly, their humorous behavior makes them seem like the Brady Bunch plus two. A lack of dimension causes Grass to rely upon their professions to describe them, and these seem to mirror Grass’ own bohemian life: careers in the arts, in the theater, in the medical professions.
One might be entertained by their interactions, but one also awaits some sort of actual exchange not smothered by kitsch and schmaltz. But this expectation is defeated. Grass has Lara say: “[S]o when people read him, they could never tell how much of it was true.… It’s possible even we, sitting here and talking are just figments of his imagination — what do you think? That is what he is allowed to do, what he does best: dream up things, imagine things, until they become real and cast a shadow.”
At one point the reader’s concerns are even dismissed by Grass, whose admissions about his wartime service suddenly appear: “The children must never find out what their father has suppressed,” he writes. “Not a word about guilt and other unwelcome deliveries. The only thing about which there should be no doubts is that once upon a time there were guardian angels…”
Really? Isn’t the point of this book that Grass wants to consider, in fictional form, what they think about him? “The Box” is a problematic work—Grass’ consideration of his own complicated career through the safety of fiction—and another such work of veiled autobiography is on the horizon: “Grimm’s Words,” the story of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s work on the dictionary of the German language, is just now available in Germany.
McGonigle is the author of “Going to Patchogue” and “The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov.”
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