BOOKS / Super Grass: Critics call him Germany's greatest living writer, but he has almost forgotten what it's like to get a good review. Gunter Grass talks about the politics of his new novel

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THAT moustache first of all. The profiles and interviews always call it a 'walrus' moustache, as if it were one of those animals Gunter Grass is so fond of naming his novels after - The Rat, The Flounder, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years, Diary of a Snail. In the mid-1960s, when the Beatles wore zapatas too and The Tin Drum made Grass an international celebrity, the moustache seemed to put him at the heart of the action: he was the walrus, he was the egghead, goo goo g'joob. Lately, though, it's had other, less flattering connotations, relegating him to the role of a wrinkled beastie, the lumbering conscience of the German nation, whose complaints and admonitions - tsk-tsk - no one wants to hear.

But the man stepping out of his country house near Lubeck looks nothing like a lonely prophet, a Solzhenitsyn of Schleswig-Holstein. He has a heavy cold, but the handshake is firm and let's-to-business. The clothes are work- clothes: green cords, old stripy jacket, jumper with a hole in. The studio he shows me round, across the yard, is a display case of his multifarious energies, a shelf-reminder that he's active in several other arts: there are his sculptures of naked men and women in agonised ecstasy; his bronzes of goose-necks or coils of snake; his dry-points and engravings and etchings.

And then, when we sit down, there's that moustache. It's more thickety than ever. The wintry streaks in it, a contrast to the sleek black of the hair above, haven't slowed its rate of growth. It seems to grow even as we sit there, curling down over his lips and into his mouth. If this were a Grass novel, the moustache would grow until the mouth were stopped.

No danger of that, though. In three weeks Gunter Grass will be 65, but he isn't planning to shut up: 'I always promise my wife that I'll take it more easy one day, but . . . ' One week in four he spends at his other house, in Berlin, seeing his secretary and some of his (six or more) children. There are readings, an exhibition, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the translations of his new novel, The Call of the Toad, published in Germany as Unkenrufe and now about to appear throughout Europe. Then there's the campaigning to do: for the environment, for Rushdie, for the good of his nation: 'This is one of the lessons I've learnt, in a country which burnt books first, then people: there's no place to hide, you can't close yourself away.'

The talk is bullish, but recently Grass has taken a lot of shit. Less stubborn men might have given up after some of the reviews of Unkenrufe. Most spectacularly, there was Marcel Reich-Ranicki in Der Spiegel, whose hatchet-job on Grass's last novel has become so famous that this time they published his photograph with the review as well as Grass's. The axe was out again: affecting admiration for Grass's earlier achievement, Reich-Ranicki treated him as a man virtually brain-dead, attacked his lack of ideas and embarrassing descriptions of sex, and wondered how such a catastrophic book had been allowed to appear ('Wie konnte dieses Malheur passieren?').

'All my books cause controversies,' says Grass, hacking into his handkerchief. 'There are two or three literary popes who are always saying: Grass is the greatest German writer, but this book is terrible. It's been going on for 30 years. It's crazy. Two-and-a-half years ago I was the bad boy, the pessimist, the Schwarzseher, because I described what would happen if reunification came without preparation. They hate me for being right. They misuse the book to attack my politics. I laugh at it.'

The laugh must be on some other, invisible side of Grass's face. Five years ago, after the hostile critical reception of The Rat, he disappeared to India in a huff. For his new novel, he left his old publishing house, Luchterhand, and moved to a small publisher in Gottingen, Steidl. Grass was taking no chances with the press: review copies were to go out only on publication day, so the public could buy Unkenrufe in bookshops before reading the reviews. Commercially, the trick paid off: 90,000 copies have been sold, a very high figure for Germany. Critically, it has failed: the German media felt affronted, and Der Spiegel somehow acquired an early copy of the book and carried Reich- Ranicki's demolition ahead of publication.

Grass shows me two of his latest sketches:

one is a self-portrait, the novelist's face peering from behind a cactus; the other is of a hand covered with dead flies. The drawings sum up Grass's paranoid relationship with the German literary establishment. Since the deaths of Heinrich Boll, Max Frisch, Friedrich Durrenmatt and Thomas Bernhard, he is widely agreed to be the greatest living German- language author. But he has almost forgotten what it's like to get good reviews.

TO UNDERSTAND Grass's current unpopularity, you have first to look at his life, which as he once said is 'overloaded with the German past'. Born in 1927, he was the son of a grocer in the Free city of Danzig; a Hitler youth at 14; in the Luftwaffe at 16; captured by the Americans and forced to see Dachau as part of his detox programme; a member of the legendary writing circle Gruppe 47; Willy Brandt's speech-writer for over a decade. Grass has been there, done that, and won't allow his countrymen to forget what he saw, least of all what he saw of Nazism. His 'mentality', he says, is 'mixed up between east and west', which gives him an advantage. He keeps rattling old bones. People don't like it. They prefer to think the bones are Grass's own.

In particular, they resent his argument that Auschwitz forever removes Germany's right to become a strong nation. In 1990, in books and pamphlets, speeches and broadcasts, Grass waged a constant war against reunification. Ten years before, in Headbirths, he'd joked that East and West Germany should switch their political systems once every decade, so that the East could relax under capitalism and the West drain off some cholesterol under Communism. Now, he says, his idea 'was to go a slow way', recalling the snail of his earlier work, symbol of the inching progress of social democracy.

'Unity has always been a disaster - for our neighbours and for ourselves. I wanted to use the possibility of a federation. There are big divisions in Germany, not just between East and West but between North and South. A city like Dresden is more like Cracow, Vienna or Budapest. These divisions aren't necessarily a bad thing: they're part of our richness. But we do have to listen to our differences. German unity, from Bismarck to Hitler, was the basis for Auschwitz: only centralisation gave power to such terrible thoughts as anti-Semitism.'

Is he saying that he fears another Auschwitz? 'No. But I understand Germans. They'll always jump from one leg to the other, weak one minute, strong the next. When they're attacked from every side, by France and Italy and Britain and so on, when they feel 'Everyone is against us', that's when the danger starts. They want to be good Europeans, but . . . '

Even people sympathetic to Grass point out that his idea of 'slow' reunification was never practical, given the upheavals of late 1989 and 1990. But Grass is more than ever convinced of his rightness: 'It has turned out even more terribly than I described. Even Der Spiegel now admits it has been a disaster. I don't want to be a Jeremiah or Cassandra. It would be more fun not to have to warn. It's a terrible gift.'

He says this with a smile. I don't believe a word of it. Nor, I would guess, does he.

IT WAS during the revolutions of 1989, the Gulf war and reunification, that he began his new novel, The Call of the Toad: 'Unusual for me - no distance between the events and the writing. But sometimes I have the feeling that by writing I can stop a thing happening.' This makes the book sound urgent and polemical, but it is his simplest, most touching novel for many years, a geriatric love story: German widower meets Polish widow in Gdansk. 'I hope this will be my last novel set in Danzig,' says Grass, 'but I'm not sure.' No sexual politics as in The Flounder or The Rat: the lovers are kindred spirits, equal powers, non-sparring partners; they even share names, Alexander and Alexandra. 'I have to see a novel, and often do drawings, before I can begin,' Grass says. 'This time I saw two people buying flowers in a cemetery. I was drawn to them because they have lived, because they're refugees and have been widowed, because they know what it's like to lose something.'

Arm in arm down Cemetery Road, the old toads conceive the idea of a Polish-German graveyard of reconciliation - a homeland where Germans driven out of Danzig can return to be buried. It's a lovely, late Utopian idea for this, the 'Century of Expulsions'. Gdansk provides the ground, Germany the seed money; coffins and urns cross the border; there's no shortage of takers.

But then things begin to go wrong. A fence is put up and torn down - local resentment and vandalism. More alarmingly, the Germans raise the question of reburials: the digging up and transfer of a silent clientele ('Army of German Corpses Threatens Gdansk' a Polish newspaper writes). The Germans want other things, too: maternity hospitals and golf courses for those in Poland attending funerals; lakeside retirement communities, where old Danzigers can live out their last days. Alexander and Alexandra protest, but are outvoted: triumph of the dictator Mammon, the Deutschmark uber alles.

You can see why as an allegory of German economic might and eastward expansionism the novel might cause offence. But Grass believes, with some justice, that critics have overlooked its humour: 'Even people who like the book are ashamed to admit they laughed. Germans mistrust humour: it's not allowed. A girl came up to me at a reading once and asked: Mr Grass, is there nothing that's beyond irony? And I had to say: no, believe it or not, there's nothing. But irony can be a kind of love, too.'

Some of the irony in the novel comes through Alexander, whose toad-like croaks of gloom about the future are an ironic self-portrait of Grass the anti-reunificationist. There's humour, too, in the Bengali Mr Chatterjee, who starts a rickshaw service in Gdansk, and symbolises a sort of reverse colonisation, the East feeding the West. 'Europe is too proud to learn from Asia,' Grass tells me. 'Europe is sick and fat and without ideas. Two or three businessmen moving in on a place - that's not a free market] Asia's message is: 'We are coming. You gave us the bicycle and now we are bringing it back to your stinky, poisoned cities.' Mix it all up, I say: only a great mixing up can save us. It happened before: at the end of the Roman Empire, for example. Look at what the Moors gave us. And yet we were much more European in those days, before the time of nationalism.'

Later I discover that Mr Chatterjee's rickshaw is more than a metaphor, that Grass has in fact made serious attempts to persuade city authorities to introduce rickshaw services - that for the Leipzig Book Fair there very nearly was a rickshaw service, until the cost of importing one was calculated and people began to mumble: what's so pro-Third World about Europeans using rickshaw drivers? This Gunter Grass - who has also tried to organise Polish- German debates on a novel which is about the difficulty of German-Polish reconciliation - sounds as cranky and endearing as D H Lawrence trying to persuade coal-miners to brighten up their lives by wearing red trousers.

But he is not the Grass talking now, who has gone into overdrive, who doesn't recognise the polite British distinction between art and politics ('What about Milton?') or, if he does, believes 'writers these days have much more responsibility than politicians'. Talk of Mr Chatterjee leads him to the persecution of gypsies ('They're the best Europeans, because they'll live anywhere'), and Bosnia, and the possibility that the Third World War has already started. This Grass has shoulders which are sinking under the burdens of the planet. This Grass wears his Weltschmerz on his sleeve.

'To get back to the novel . . . ' I say when he pauses and sighs like a stranded whale. But he hasn't stopped, there's no getting back to the novel, and after a bit I give in. Britain and the Bundesbank? 'It's too easy to blame the Bundesbank. In England you are paying for the era of Thatcher, for the Eighties.' The neo-Nazi rioters? 'It's terrible what they're doing, but you have to remember the terrible, hopeless conditions they're living in. I'm much more worried by the weakness of the politicians' response.' Patriotism? 'When they've destroyed the constitution, which they're trying to now, there won't be anything left between me and Germany.' The decline of the Left? 'People say I'm much more radical than before. But it's not me who's changed, it's others.'

There is no issue Grass hasn't an aphorism for, even in his imperfect English. But I've come wanting to hear him defend his novel as a novel, against the German critics who've attacked it for political reasons. And he's no less caught in the thickets of ideology than they are.

WHEN the tape stops, we wander down the garden - apple trees and nut trees, the last of the sweetcorn, the flash of a canal. Grass's second wife, Ute, joins us: she is taller, younger and leaner than him, less gemutlich, too, not about to stand any nonsense from visiting journalists. Grass bends to pluck a mushroom from the grass, a small, black slimy variety which he rolls appreciatively between his fingers.

He likes his mushrooms. In The Tin Drum they're erotically associated, along with vanilla and fizz powder, with the young Maria. In The Call of the Toad, they sizzle aphrodisiacally in Alexandra's frying pan on her first evening with Alexander. Grass is probably the foodiest writer since Rabelais, and in the new book his appetite is as large as ever, as keen as it was even in The Flounder: smoked goose breast and liver sausage, roast pork with sauerkraut and caraway seeds, perch fillets in dill sauce. If he were English, some publisher would have persuaded him to put together a cookbook. But he is strict with himself about extra-curricular writing - no book-reviewing, no prefaces, no Cooking with Grass or Grilly Gunter.

But perhaps not strict enough. What most people remember from The Tin Drum is a series of marvellously sensual images: a wide skirt in a potato field; a boy peering between socks and shoes on a Nazi rostrum; a horse's head wriggling with eels. Hasn't he spent too much of himself fighting good fights, and not enough on images and stories? When I put this tentatively, he denies it - 'there are weeks and even months when I'm confronted only by white paper and copper plates' - and goes on to speak about Sisyphus needing his stone: 'That was Camus's great insight: without his stone, Sisyphus would feel lost.' It's a good answer. But then I think of those sketches he showed me: if only he could shake off the flies of dead argument; if only he could get out from behind that cactus.

'Did you like the book?' he asks, almost as an afterthought.


'The Call of the Toad', translated by Ralph Manheim, is published by Secker on October 12

(Photograph omitted)