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.