A book that changed me

HOWARD DAVIES on Gunter Grass's 'Headbirths'

When did you first read it? In 1982 I reviewed it enthusiastically for the Literary Review. Frankly, I doubt whether I would have read the book had the editor not sent it to me. Grass is not a favourite author of mine. I have found most of his long novels, aside from The Tin Drum, quite resistible.

Why did it strike you so much? In a cheerful, short, readable novella, Grass confronts some of the most difficult issues we face in Europe at the end of the 20th century. What is the future of the European nation state? How can the Germans be fully integrated into a peaceful European Union? What do Europe's low birth rates mean? Have we lost confidence in our own future, faced with the relentless, optimistic expansion of Asia? Grass handles these weighty themes lightly, through the story of two left-leaning, environmentally-conscious German teachers on a holiday trip to China. Childless in their mid-thirties, they know the opportunity to start a family is passing them by. But they ask themselves why they should breed in over-crowded, polluted Europe. Their arguments seem negative and depressing against the background of Shanghai's teeming millions, where people are confident and optimistic, in spite of all their problems. Grass concludes that there will soon be a need for a museum of German life, like the Aztec museum in Mexico, to show future generations what German society used to be like.

Have you re-read it? If so, how many times? I read it again about five years ago and again very recently on my own first trip to Shanghai, as a check on my reaction to China. German reunification alters some of the background, but his foresight in -facing up to the issue of an ageing population in Europe - which was not on the agenda 15 years ago -seems even more remarkable. And the images remain as vivid as ever - even though Shanghai has more Rolls Royces than rickshaws these days.

Do you recommend it? Grass is not an author to everyone's taste. The authorial voice is rather intrusive for British tastes, and some of his preoccupations are very Germanic. Jokes about Saxons and Swabians pass us by. But if you are interested in the future of Europe, or concerned about an ageing population and its consequences for our future way of life, then you will not be disappointed.

Howard Davies is chairman of the Financial Services Authority

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