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From Barnes & NobleA Century Ends
Newly christened Nobel Laureate Günter Grass grabbed the world's attention in 1958 with a debut novel, The Tin Drum, that examined Germany's recent past from the viewpoint of a boy who stopped growing at the age of three. This enabled little Oskar to witness history from a unique and unnoticed perspective. The Nobel Committee surely chose Grass in part for his astonishing capacity to render the larger scope of humanity and history through the smaller lens of the individual. In his latest offering, My Century, Grass confirms his virtuosity as he chronicles his, and Germany's, century through the eyes of nearly a hundred different observers—some very ordinary, others extraordinary. In doing so, Grass simultaneously meditates on a tumultuous century and guides his readers from everyday reality to a higher realm of symbolism and allegory.
The form of the book allows Grass to exploit his considerable talents to their utmost. The book's first chapter, entitled "1900," begins with this sentence: "Me, trading places with myself, I was in the thick of things, year in and year out." Although we soon learn that this is a soldier speaking, it may as well be Grass himself, because he goes on to live up to the soldier's promise, offering a different chapter and narrator for every year of the century. We pass from year to year through the eyes of, among others, an antique collector, an incontinent child ("And so it happened that in the year 1907 I pissed not only my pants but also my father's neck"), a senator, a radio broadcaster, a schoolteacher, a painter's assistant, and a sports fanatic. The two world wars are each told by a single narrator, providing Grass the opportunity to delve somewhat deeper into these crucial periods.
Grass's conceit is, suffice to say, somewhat disjointed: Each narrator is only with us for a couple of pages. But it is not long before the choppiness of his fractured narrative recedes, and a larger and more fluid structure begins to assert itself; Günter Grass is one of the rare authors who can address the forces of history explicitly without getting lost in cliché and abstraction. By the chapters of the century's teens, as we see the seeds of the Third Reich, small events and details begin to assume a subtle but forceful symbolic weight. By World War II, as a war correspondent who "rarely has anything sensational to report" stares out into the ocean, first singing "Hurrah for the storm and the thundering waves" and then, finally, "just star[ing] mutely out at the sea," the everyday has become allegorical. The reader can sense an overarching, intelligent creative entity—"Me, trading places with myself"—that seemingly could turn its attention toward any given person and tell us something important about history and humanity through his or her eyes.
Tolstoy argued that wars are won and history is made by the foot soldiers, Hegel that certain crucial individuals shape it to their ends. Grass boldly picks both sides of the argument, sometimes giving us a privileged glance at the actions of the century's leaders and artists through the eyes of their attendants, other times zeroing in on an anonymous participant in a watershed event. In a few cases, such as a narrative of a large woman named Bertha who had a certain gun named after her, Grass suggests that the line between the somebodies and the nobodies—using any of the limitless definitions of these terms—is blurrier than we might think.
Many of the themes of My Century mirror those of Germany's tortured 20th century. But beyond war and peace, love and hate, remembrance, forgiveness, and forgetting, Grass's narrators focus on topics that might be ignored by a more traditional historical survey. New technologies and fashions come up again and again. Radios, motor cars, and even straw hats play their part: "There was much that was new at the time," says a civil servant who, in 1902, has succumbed to the latest fad and bought a "flat-topped, buttercup-yellow, vainglorious straw hat." He goes on to enumerate a theme that Grass revisits through many different voices: "And since progress was the keynote of the day, many straw hatters were curious about times to come." Grass doesn't let us forget that history is at its most exciting not after the fact, but in the moment of its inception. Sometimes, as in a gripping description of a Nazi mob seen from the rooftop of a Jewish artist, we see an event through the wise eyes of an observer who understands what must follow; other times, such as a chapter by a Nazi who is being transferred from a camp after botching the murder of a Jew that was meant to look like suicide, we vicariously experience the blinding power of propaganda and distortion.
Another recurring theme in My Century is that of play, and specifically sports. Is the history of the 20th century best told through the history of its sporting events? Probably not, but in choosing to focus on so many different sports narratives, Grass tells us something about his own project. One hundred brief chapters surely cannot "do justice" to the complexity of Germany's 20th century. But by calling forth images of boxing rings, racing tracks, and soccer fields, Grass suggests that with a certain arbitrary setting of limits—the lines of the soccer pitch or the sampling of individual voices for his narrative—we can make a leap that helps us grasp something that is otherwise too grand and elusive to comprehend. This is the power of symbol and parable, and, as Grass's supporters on the Nobel Committee no doubt understood, he is perhaps our greatest living mythmaker.
About the Author
Recently named the recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, Günter Grass is Germany's most celebrated contemporary writer. His most recent book in English is a collection of poetry, Novemberland.