Letter from Berlin: At home with Grass

THE EVENING before Erich Honecker was flown back to a prison cell in West Berlin, the stage was set, in East Berlin, for the entrance of another gladiator: Germany's emperor of letters, Gunther Grass.

It was his first public appearance for some time. But you would not have found a notice in the society columns about this event; just a short entry in the literature column of the Berlin listings guide, which read: 'Gunther Grass reads from his new book.'

Gunther Grass, author of the classic novel The Tin Drum and many other works, has always been at odds with his society. Once referred to as the conscience of a divided Germany, he is now the chief intellectual opponent of reunification.

Fielding a question after the reading, he leaned back with the air of a vindicated prophet: 'What has happened is shameful,' he said. 'We were presented with a gift, and we could not have done anything more stupid with it. We have replaced a division, the total division of a wall and barbed wire, with a social division. And I fear that this new division, this reduction of one part of the German people to second-class citizens, will last longer than the wall. I was one of those who warned of this . . . And I believe we have to keep on challenging the prophets of false hopes, without fear of repeating ourselves.'

The young audience responded with unanimous applause. Here was man sensitive to their own identity crisis.

The German press is stuffed at present with reports of the 'the wall in the heads' dividing easterners from westerners. Disgruntled east Germans have recently launched a protest movement, The Committee for Justice, to resist what they see as the brutal steamroller of reunification, driven by west German big business and steered by the Kohl government in Bonn. To this audience, Grass - himself an exile from the lost German territories east of the Elbe - is a man who has been banging his tin drum on their behalf.

The setting seemed more suited to a political press conference than a book reading: a temporary stage, bright spotlights against a black backdrop, a tall black lectern with four microphones, But then Grass is a writer who has always made it his business to meddle in the affairs of state.

The venue was a converted brewery in the Prenzlauer Berg district of East Berlin, home of the artistic opposition of the former GDR. Cannily, the place has been renamed the Kulturbrauerei (Culture brewery). Gathered here was a special audience, thirsting for a draught of a very special cultural brew.

An emperor in new clothes, no less. Gone were the baggy corduroys and leather-elbow patches of the SPD intellectual of the 1960s and 70s, the writer who had the ear of the German chancellors of Ostpolitik, Brandt and Schmidt. Now it was the soft summer pastels of the well- heeled German middle-class: clay slacks, green tailored cotton shirt with a co-ordinated jacket.

If all this suggested contentment and a man relaxing into retirement (Grass is 65 this year), the appearance deceived. Grass has been slugging it out with the German high and mighty for the past two years in a battle not only for his honorary title as the nation's conscience, but also for his literary reputation.

His new book, Unkenrufe (Toad Calls - an image from legend which, appropriately, also means a prophecy of doom) was published in Germany in May. It is Grass's first work since reunification. The British translation is due out in October. This was its first public reading.

The doyen of German literary critics, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, writing in Der Spiegel in May, called Grass 'Germany's foremost and representative writer'. However, he had not come to praise, but to bury. He wrote that the 'linguistic power' was still intact, but the subject of the story was 'far-fetched, cliche- ridden and long-winded'.

The book recounts a love story between a Polish woman and a German man in their later years, which spawns a German-Polish joint venture to build a cemetery for exiled Germans in Grass's birthplace, Gdansk. It is a parable of reconciliation between the two nations, which constitute the divided identity of the author.

The critics, however, were far from divided. With a couple of notable exceptions, Grass's new work took a hammering.

But you would never have guessed this here. Behind the bouquet of press microphones, Grass looked out at a sell-out audience, stacked in an arena of temporary stands with looks of awe and affection in their eyes These new Germans, in from the cold, were here to give a collective hug to their new great-uncle. For a man who has lost a few friends recently, it must have been like coming home to a warm fire.

At the customary book-signing session after the reading, a young east German proffered him a copy of Neues Deutschland to sign - a newspaper which was the former mouthpiece of the East German regime. Perhaps the young man could not afford a copy of Grass's new book. A few years ago he would never have got near one of Grass's works, nor would Grass have put his signature to this newspaper. He signed it now, with an ironic smile, but he is as far now as he ever was to putting his name to the document which sealed the New Germany.

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home