From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990

From Germany to Germany: Diary 1990

by Günter Grass

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“Very much the work of a writer conscious of his role as a political man of letters.”—Kirkus Reviews

In January 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Günter Grass made two New Year’s resolutions: the first was to travel extensively in the newly united Germany and the second was to keep a diary, to record his


“Very much the work of a writer conscious of his role as a political man of letters.”—Kirkus Reviews

In January 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Günter Grass made two New Year’s resolutions: the first was to travel extensively in the newly united Germany and the second was to keep a diary, to record his impressions of a historic time.

Grass takes part in public debates, writes for newspapers, makes speeches, and meets emerging politicians. He talks to German citizens on both sides, listening to their bewilderment and their hopes for the future. Ideas for stories take root—his novels The Call of the Toad and Too Far Afield.

From Germany to Germany is also a personal record. Grass reflects on his family, remembers his boyhood, and comments on the books he is reading, the drawings he is making, and the sumptuous meals he cooks for family and friends.

The picture that emerges—not only of the two Germanys struggling for a single identity but of a changed world after the end of the Cold War—is engrossing, passionate, and essential for anyone who wants to understand Europe’s new leading nation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With many period-specific references to modern German culture, most explained in useful identifying endnotes (presumably supplied by supple translator Winston), this memoir, covering 13 months of the key period of German unification, knowingly re-creates an era of doubts and hopes. Grass, Nobel Prize–winning author of The Tin Drum, finds himself engaged and coming to grips with well-known themes, such as the legacy of the Holocaust, as well as with contemporary events, such as the Persian Gulf War. Grass sensitively yet realistically contemplates the fate of the GDR citizen, this time set up to be duped by the instruments of West German capitalism. Election day (December 2, 1990), happens to be the first day of Advent, a time for sober reflection—a capper on a guilt-swept century. Drawings by the author are help to ground him, as does verbal creation. As Grass writes, “I am positively itching for the imponderable process of writing, a process with laws all its own that I am glad to submit to, though not without anxiety.” Drawings. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"A fascinating journal."
Library Journal
After his straightforward Peeling the Onion and The Box, a creative meld of memory and ideas, Grass takes another look at the past—particularly his past, significant because it parallels some crucial moments of the 20th century. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Grass decided to travel through the newly reunited Germany, bearing witness as compatriots (new and old) coped with startling new facts of life, and to keep a diary of his experiences, published here.
Kirkus Reviews
A momentous year for Germany and the author, as detailed in a journal published more than two decades after the fact. In 1990, nine years before he would win the Nobel Prize for literature, Grass (The Box: Tales from the Darkroom, 2010, etc.) experienced a year of such turmoil that he thought it might be worth documenting in a daily journal, even though, he writes at the outset, "I am not one of those people who love keeping a journal. Something unusual must be happening to inflict this ritual on me." The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rush toward German unification, about which the author's attitude ranged from profound ambivalence to outright resistance, provided the spur, as the political and economic climate in his homeland would tempt Grass to renounce his German citizenship and cause critics to disparage him as "the nation's pessimist" or even a traitor. Though he shows no reluctance to "challenge the politicians' pieties and spit in the unity soup," even Grass wonders whether he is "merely a captive of the past, a dinosaur." The author is not usually prone to intimate confession, but he provides a daily account of a year that saw Germany win the World Cup, his extended family experience a birth, a wedding and a death, and the author ponder various conceptual permutations of what would become his next novel, The Call of the Toad. Some of the most entertaining passages are those that seem out of character--e.g., "Poked my head into the minibar, which contained three bottles, nothing else. I thought I was pouring a glass of mineral water and found myself downing vodka, and a minute ago, instead of my cigarillo, I stuck half a pretzel stick in my mouth and sucked and sucked on it." Very much the work of a writer conscious of his role as a political man of letters. Much of what he finds interesting may not interest readers two decades after the fact.

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Harvill Secker
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Read an Excerpt

Vale das Eiras, 1 January 1990
While I was planting a sapling this morning on the east side of the house—Leonore Suhl gave it to us on New Year’s Eve, promising that in six or seven years it will have grown into a stately tree with blue blossoms—the new year started off with a bang. And when we went to look for mushrooms in the cork forest above Casais in early afternoon, a full-grown bolete would have fulfilled all my expectations for New Year’s Day, but our favorite spots offered slim pickings: after an unusually long rainy season—we heard it had poured for nine weeks straight in these parts—the few waterlogged chanterelles offered a good subject for a drawing, but not much else.

The drawing, however, gives me an excuse for inaugurating this journal with mushrooms rather than with the major political events that were competing for attention during the past few months, concluding with the bloody revolution in Romania and the equally bloody demonstration of military might in Panama, as if the Communist and the capitalist systems were determined to show their true colors one last time.
   I am not one of those people who love keeping a journal. Something unusual must be happening to inflict this ritual on me. I felt a similar compulsion in 1969 when a democratic change in government became possible in the German Federal Republic, and I abandoned my writing desk to devote myself to campaigning for the Social Democrats. Their narrow victory soon provided the material for a book. Or our half year in Calcutta. (Without a journal the city would hardly have been bearable.) This time I will keep trying to vault over the border that separates the two German states, and will also stick my nose into both election campaigns, in May and December. Now that my work on Dead Wood is done, I would have liked to start on a regular manuscript, one that might have turned out to be quite long: the story of two widows, Frau Piątkowska and Frau Reschke, who meet in Gdánsk on All Saints’ Day and craft a plan, which is soon implemented because the time for it happens to be ripe: the establishment of a Polish-German cemetery, ltd. But this journal is more pressing.
   This evening, the toad in our inner courtyard. As big as a full-grown guinea pig, it assumes for me the identity of one of those toads that last autumn could be heard calling from far and near as soon as darkness fell: the call of the toad. I grasped it behind its front legs and held it up for Ute to photograph. Its sacklike body dangled. Everything motionless, including its blank green eyes with orange horizontal stripes. The only sign of life a pulsing in its throat. What is this creature doing in my journal, I wondered, except that it is unfamiliar, incomprehensible, and at best suggests a title—for something, I don’t know what: “The Call of the Toad”?

Vale das Eiras, 2 January 1990
As if trying to fortify myself by doing something positive, I planted another tree, this time a carob, on the west side of the house, a tree that grows slowly, which brought the following comment from Ute, who objected to the spot I had chosen: “Well, I won’t be around to see it get tall.”
   It began to rain again. The gas heater lit upstairs, I sat down to work on “Writing after Auschwitz.” I think I picked this subject, which is bound to defeat me, to force myself to take a position; a suspicious number of my fellow writers who used to be able to rattle off their newfound antifascist credo as fluently as Schiller’s poem “The Bell” are now brimming with nationalist sentiment to the point of idiocy. To me, however, robbed of many prized German possessions over the years—with the exception of the language—Auschwitz seems to offer one last chance to think about Germany. (In the Frankfurt speech I want to try to demonstrate how the alleged right to German unity, in the form of a reunited state, is refuted by Auschwitz.) Write slowly!
   It would work better to have the widow Piątkowska meet a widower by the name of Alexander Reschke in Gdánsk while both are buying flowers in the Dominican Market hall on All Saints’ Day. In the year the Wall came down, of course. Or is it All Souls’ Day? At any rate, in November. Flowers for cemeteries. But her mother is buried in Wilna, where the daughter was born, and his mother in the Rhineland, although she, like him, was born in Danzig. That’s what they talk about: where they would like to be buried. This conversation and others, in the course of which a relationship develops, give rise to the idea of a German-Polish cemetery association. He says, “It must be possible, now that so much else has become possible, to choose one’s final resting place.” She wants to be laid to rest in Wilna, which she had to leave as a sixteen-year-old, while he wants to be buried in Danzig/Gdánsk, which he left as a seventeen-year-old soldier. Others want the same. Thousands of them. One need only make it possible. Hence a legally incorporated association.

Vale das Eiras, 3 January 1990
The first fish of the year in the oven, with vegetables—tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, onions, and sweet potatoes. Went shopping in Lagos. No German papers except Bild-Zeitung, with a screaming New Year’s headline, “Madness!” A word that since the opening of the German-German border has become increasingly inflated. Or does it now foretell and invoke actual madness?—“The Call of the Toad.”
   Working on the Frankfurt speech forces me to recall my time as a Hitler Youth. Granted, I was not totally fanatical, but I was hardly plagued by doubts either. A completely different person now? Definitely, as far as the evolution of my political thinking and actions is concerned; yet my youthful obsession with ambitious projects, almost epic in scope, such as creating tables of historical and cultural developments (anticipating Stein’s Timetables of History), strikes me as familiar. This aspect of my personality may have undergone correction, polishing, professional development in the meantime, but fundamentally it has not changed.
   Last night a conversation with Ute, till long after midnight, about my plan for the new year: from February to September I intend to be in the GDR every month, for longer or shorter periods, crisscrossing the country from Rügen to the Vogtland, to keep my eye on the changes taking place after this enormous political and revolutionary transformation. The plan also calls for a stay in the soft-coal mining region around Spremberg. That is where I was wounded in the spring of ’45, on 20 April. I want to capture the devastated landscape in drawings. Ute will join me only occasionally. That means buying a sleeping bag just for myself.
   It may be too early at this point to form an image of Professor Alexander Reschke. At any rate, he teaches something, not yet specified, at the University of Essen. Probably history. An old leftist intellectual in whom the recent developments in Germany have awakened a kind of sentimental nationalism, but tempered with irony. She, the widow Halina Piątkowska, is a pediatrician. Between the end of November ’89 and May ’90 a lively correspondence develops between the widower and the widow, increasingly focused on their shared project, which gradually takes shape, resulting in a first purchase of land: a rolling three-and-a-half-hectare plot south of Brentau that includes a patch of forest and could eventually be extended in the direction of Ramkau. There is also a sum of money in dollars, deposited in a savings account, large enough to make possible a similar land purchase on the outskirts of Wilna (Vilnius). Neither of them, the widow nor the widower, would have credited themselves with so much business acumen.
   I have started another drawing for Dead Wood after all. To escalate the positive to the point of madness, a third tree found its way into a hole on the south slope: what the Portuguese call a nespereira, a loquat, which promises juicy, somewhat sour fruit. We continue to have downpours; I hope the ground is not too soggy.

Vale das Eiras, 4 January 1990
From year’s end until the day before yesterday I was reading Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, a book that invites contradiction and is constantly undercutting itself, belaboring Jewishness and anti-Semitism to come up with an answer to a fairly banal question: Is it permissible for a writer to exploit himself and his family as material? The answer Roth clearly had in mind all along is yes. Perhaps I find the book off-putting because I don’t really care for writers who constantly make themselves the subjects of their books. Even when the author invests his fictitious narrator with dazzlingly telling arguments, it seems hardly worth the effort; no wonder “Judea,” the chapter on Israel, is colorless compared to Amos Oz’s collected interviews, In the Land of Israel. I wonder why Jurek Becker recommended this book to me the evening before the SPD party convention in Berlin. I’ll have to ask him.
   The sky is still overcast, with more rain likely. Today all I managed to plant were five rosemarys and three lavenders.
   An increasing source of pleasure: the absence of television and telephone. An outline from last year that now could be titled “The Call of the Toad” has the working title “Crabwalk.” Whatever title I settle on, no matter how badly this German-Polish escapade ends, the story should turn out to be fiendishly funny: widow and widower are the ideal subjects, with their fatuously humane attitudes. The subplots, such as the piecemeal acquisition of the Lenin Shipyard, need to be worked in sparingly. Both protagonists are in splendid health, even if Reschke is a hypochondriac.
   Last night, after waking up several times, I dreamed I was looking for a place to stay in Leipzig (with my sleeping bag), a dream that also pitted several members of my extended family against each other. At the end, if the dream had an end, Nele’s mother pulled Ute’s car out of the ditch with her own car, after I was gone, on my way.


Meet the Author

GÜNTER GRASS (1927–2015), Germany's most celebrated contemporary writer, attained worldwide renown with the publication of his novel The Tin Drum in 1959. A man of remarkable versatility, Grass was a poet, playwright, social critic, graphic artist, and novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.

Steidl is a German-language publisher, an international publisher of photobooks, and a printing company, based in Göttingen, Germany.

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