In Defense of More Complicated
With each passing year, history piles up unaccountably behind us, a morass of events and ideas, contingent or random, shifting, mounting, blowing about like sand on a windy shore. Historians do us the favor of ordering the morass, building a linked chain and bringing it to bear in some meaningful way on our present. Historical novelists perform a similar feat, selecting a narrative of consequence and through plot twists or seductive emotions making it meaningful, not to our present time so much as to our present state of mind. And then, there are those writers whose very subject is the weight and complexity of history -- writers like Günter Grass. His latest novel to be translated (beautifully translated) into English is Too Far Afield, which was published five years ago in Germany and is set more or less in 1989, the year of German reunification.
Twentieth-century German history, to put it very generally, is a tumult of contradictions, conflicts, and terrible failures. Grass, who's known as a social critic as well as Germany's greatest living writer, was praised for his searching and uncompromising portrayal of Nazi history in his 1959 novel, The Tin Drum. (Of his 23 subsequent publications, that debut was the one particularly cited by the Nobel Prize committee in 1999 when Grass won that award.) But it is for his outspoken criticism of current politics that Grass is considered a controversial writer in his own country. Too Far Afield is a scathingly ambivalent vision of German reunification, questioning "the idiotic pride in Deutschland that has always gone hand in hand with violence." And the novel is, in effect, quite a different way of looking at the triumphs of the Velvet Revolution.
Theo Wuttke is an elderly East German writer and historian whose work has become inextricable from his life -- history is so alive for Wuttke that he is seldom able to distinguish between past and present. He's particularly in the thrall of a 19th-century Prussian balladeer named Theodor Fontane, whose birthday he shares (100 years later), whose biography is spookily parallel to Wuttke's own, and who originally coined the now-proverbial German phrase "das ist ein zu weites Feld" ("that takes us too far afield"). Wuttke's identification with him is so notorious that he's popularly known as "Fonty," while he himself refers to Fontane as "The Immortal." And the way the two writers' lives conjoin and together span almost 200 years, they do seem nearly immortal. As a public intellectual, Wuttke has been under constant police surveillance in the form of Stasi spy Ludwig Hoftaller, his "Day and Night Shadow," who is the reincarnation of a 19th-century spy called Ludwig Tallhover. The names are interchangeable -- Hoftaller/Tallhover the spy is two-faced by nature. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the apparatus of Soviet rule in the East becomes obsolete, though the paradigms of both a united and divided Germany remain vital and vexed. Accordingly, Too Far Afield follows these two characters and their historical doppelgängers as their roles in the "new" Germany shift, reverse, and grow irrelevant. The collapse of past and present is emphasized by the novel's remarkable narrator, a group of Archivists, whose task it was under the former regime to collect and record information gathered by the secret police, and in the new regime, to attempt to make sense of history, much of which had been altered or destroyed.
But that's the simple version of the story. It is all in fact much more complicated. Too Far Afield is a formidable undertaking. Its complex of historical, literary, and political references, related in Grass's inimitable style, is easily as challenging a read as James Joyce's Ulysses. And as with Ulysses, an American reader might crave annotation, some kind of explanatory text to fill in the blanks. Though even in the absence of such guidance, Too Far Afield is well worth the commitment. History is a dense web, and Grass plunges right into his version of it; the first bewildering chunk is the hardest, but have faith. Substance doesn't always come easily, yet the endeavor pays off. For the rewards are absorbing, vivid, comic, tragic, and endlessly provocative.
Minna Proctor is a writer and translator. She lives in New York.