BOOK REVIEW / Love and greed at the dead centre of town: Euan Cameron on the eloquent new novel by Gunter Grass. 'The Call of the Toad' - Gunter Grass; Tr. Ralph Manheim: Secker & Warburg, 14.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS 33 years since Gunter Grass's most famous creation, Oskar the dwarf, first challenged the comfortable assumptions of the German bourgeoisie with his mockery and grotesque humour in The Tin Drum. The ruthless realism and violent imagery of that novel established Grass as the outstanding novelist of his generation, a position he has maintained, while his political views have ensured that he has remained, in George Steiner's words, 'the active conscience of Germany'.

His latest novel is set, like The Tin Drum, in Grass's birthplace, the former Free City of Danzig or Gdansk, where he was born in 1927. It is, on the face of it, a delightful and moving love story. Alexandria Piatkowska and Alexander Reschke, widow and widower, meet by chance on All Souls' Day at a market stall in Danzig under the shadow of the church of St Nikolai. She was born in Lithuania but is now Polish, and is a gilder by profession; he is German, originally from Danzig but now living in Bochum, and a professor of art history.

As they make their way that morning around the cemetery where her parents are buried, he wears a tweed coat and corduroys; she carries a string bag (which Grass loads with symbolic significance) into which she has put the red asters intended for her parents' grave, and the boletus mushrooms that Alexander has offered her and on which they will dine that evening. They fall in love.

It is 1989; the days of Solidarity are past, the Berlin Wall is about to come down and reconciliation and talk of reunification are in the air. The early pages of The Call of the Toad are suffused in the colours of late autumn, in shades of Catholic Europe and in images of an older culture. Grass's tone is plangent and filled with regret. But the New Europe hovers: it is first represented, in a typical Grass metaphor, by the gasoline station across from the cemetery, where tourists queue up in their Mercedes, intent on lead-free petrol.

The story of the two lovers is told through letters, cuttings and photographs bequeathed to an unnamed narrator, a former classmate of Alexander's, who like Gunter Grass himself, is 62, a former Hitler cub and Luftwaffe auxiliary. Together, Alexander and Alexandra conceive the notion of creating a 'cemetery of reconciliation' where both Poles, and Germans driven out of Danzig in the war, can be buried. 'Dead enemy no longer enemy,' protests Alexandra in her broken German as they gaze at the desecrated tombs, and condemn their respective countries for past barbarities and exaggerated nationalism.

Plans for the new cemetery develop apace; goals and committees are formed; a banker and a priest in jeans join the board; land is leased, rules are formed and money is raised. On the day of consecration of the German-Polish Cemetery Association, both Catholic and Evangelical clerics are present. Business prospers and the number of bodies awaiting burial mounts up. 'Believe me, Alexandra,' says her lover, 'no one economises at his funeral.'

But worrying complications ensue: some mourners ask for cremations; others, those have suffered from the effects of state atheism in former East Germany, do not even request a Christian burial; tombstone epitaphs about the Homeland are also becoming somewhat nationalist in sentiment. Expansion is what is required: so further cemeteries are acquired, retirement homes are added to the services the association offers, a clinic is built, even a reburial scheme is planned for those former citizens of the Free City buried elsewhere in the Reich. As the cemeteries fill up, so do the coffers of the association.

At about this point in the narrative, the call of the toad is heard. In German legend its melancholy notes presage disaster. In Grass's novel, it is the mating call of the red-bellied toad (illustrated in seven charming poses by Grass himself in these pages) that alerts Alexander that all may not augur well at the association. Some of the more scrupulous Polish members object to committee's business methods, but in 1990 the mark speaks louder than the zloty.

Soon Alexander is investing funds in the Bicycle Rickshaw Company, founded and run by wily Mr Chatterjee, a Bengali with a British passport, whose rickshaws will be the saving of old Europe's traffic-worn cities. Chatterjee, himself as much a victim of partition and the whims of history as any European, prophesies another sort of Volkerwanderung, a mass immigration from the sub-continent. The Bicycle Rickshaw Company and the German-Polish Cemetery Association - serving the quick and the dead, and both built on 'reciprocity' - are quick to join forces and become thriving concerns. Meanwhile, cemeteries are being created in Poland and a subsidiary company is set up with a head office in Warsaw. The Poles are learning quickly and beginning to think in terms of European union, too.

Finally, with the proposal for building bungalows and a golf course so that the wealthy grandchildren of those buried may themselves be able to 'recharge' in the Homeland, even gentle Alexandra and well-intentioned, liberal Alexander come to see that greed and expansion have replaced reconciliation and they tender their resignations. Their fellow board members are mildly astonished, but efficiency, four-language street signs and earth furniture (coffins) are all that really concern them. Alexander and Alexandra - charming, civilised old toads the pair of them - take off on a motoring holiday. Alexandra has always wanted 'to see Naples and die' and this is precisely what they both do.

No wonder Gunter Grass's novel has upset critics and readers in his own country. The new Germany looks to the future, to an ever stronger mark, to full reunification and the restructuring of the old European nation states, and it does not do for its foremost writer to keep harking back to the days of a war-torn Europe, to supposed faults in the national character and the bad old days of the Sixties when Grass wrote speeches for his friend, the late Willy Brandt. No one likes a prophet of doom and so Grass and The Call of the Toad have been hammered by the critics.

Perhaps Grass's metaphors here are a bit long-winded and the political satire at times rather laboured. Nevertheless, this is an important novel in that it contains warnings for Europeans that should surely be taken seriously by all those debating the Maastricht treaty.

Sadly, it is the last book to be translated by Ralph Manheim, the outstanding translator of our times, who died earlier this month.

Quotation from 'The Call of the Toad':

This is what I read in Alexander Reschke's notes: 'At some distance from the row of waiting taxis Mr Chatterjee stood beside a bicycle rickshaw. With what self-assurance he held the handlebars. In a jogging suit, he stood beside the rickshaw which, though not one of those notorious vehicles powered by coolies on foot, nevertheless seemed out of place, at least at first. He beckoned me to approach and admire his rickshaw - yes, it belonged to him. Spotlessly clean. A folding red-and-white striped top for the protection of his passengers in inclement weather. The frame dark blue, without a rust spot or any sign of peeling paint. Chatterjee explained: Sometimes he parked in front of this hotel, sometimes in front of another. Pure chance that we hadn't met sooner. No, the rickshaw was not imported from Dacca or Calcutta; this Dutch-produced vehicle was designed to meet European requirements. The Sparta trademark was a guarantee of quality. Sophisticated gears. He owned six others, all brand- new. But only two were in operation in the city at the moment. Yes, he had a license for the inner city and part of the pedestrian zone and recently even for Allee Grunwaldzka in both directions. There had been difficulties at first, but he found ways of ingratiating himself with the local authorities. Oh yes, it's the same all over the world. Unfortunately, it's hard to find pedallers, or rickshawwallas as they call them in Calcutta, although, as you see, the taxi drivers are almost all unemployed. The Poles' exaggerated pride keeps them from engaging their labour force in his transportation business. Which is expanding. In fact, he has ordered six more vehicles.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments