Picking away at his nation's sores

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The Independent Culture

SCRATCHING away at questions of German identity is at the heart of the writing of Gunter Grass, the grand old man with the mournful moustache. He is compassionate, funny and lacerating by turns.

SCRATCHING away at questions of German identity is at the heart of the writing of Gunter Grass, the grand old man with the mournful moustache. He is compassionate, funny and lacerating by turns.

When The Tin Drum was published in 1959, Germany still seemed heavily tainted by its near past, and the key confrontations of 1968 that helped to open up post-war Germany were yet to come. Grass was living proof that it was possible for a German to be decent, honest - and even funny.

He has always loved to dig the literary knife between the ribs of his compatriots. In the novel Dog Years he describes a fantastical eaterie that gives its customers raw onion. The place is adored by those who go there because the customers find a substitute for the feelings they have buried; the onions give them a chance to shed quasi-real tears.

Like a latter-day Tolstoy, Grass scratches at the sores of his society. During the euphoria leading up to and immediately after German unification, his lack of enthusiasm offended many compatriots. A few years later, his public fallout with the Social Democrats over their changed stance on asylum policy made him deeply unpopular with the party leaders, but he was personally satisfied that his moral compass remained steady.

Despite his prickliness he is a conciliator at heart - a role that has gained new importance as Europe opens up to the east. During the past half-century relations between Poland and Germany have been strained, to put it mildly. Poles still felt the burden of the nightmare Hitler unleashed on their country; Germans resented that postwar Poland had "stolen" territory that used to be Germany. Yet Grass - who wrote in The Tin Drum of the Kashubians, neither Polish nor German and distrusted by both - came to be respected by Poles and compatriots alike.

He is still a bundle of contradictions, full of linguistic relish. In the words of one of his poems: "As complicated as a nightingale, as tinny as, kind-hearted as, as crease-proof, as traditional, as green grave sour, as streaky, as symmetrical, as hairy... as heartless as, as mortal as, as simple as my soul."

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