East is East, and West is West...

<i>Too Far Afield</i> by G&Atilde;&frac14;nter Grass, trans. Krishna Winston (Faber &amp; Faber, &pound;25, 658pp)
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The Independent Culture

Throughout the 1990s, Günter Grass - scourge, clown and conscience - warned against too speedy a reunification of the two Germanies. Perhaps, by doing so, he partly earned himself his belated Nobel Prize. The brilliant flashlit snapshots of My Century, published last year, gave a glimpse of his concerns - the rise of racism after the fall of the Wall, the genuinely exasperating failure of communication between east and west, ideological naivety on one side and blind belief in material comforts on the other.

Throughout the 1990s, Günter Grass - scourge, clown and conscience - warned against too speedy a reunification of the two Germanies. Perhaps, by doing so, he partly earned himself his belated Nobel Prize. The brilliant flashlit snapshots of My Century, published last year, gave a glimpse of his concerns - the rise of racism after the fall of the Wall, the genuinely exasperating failure of communication between east and west, ideological naivety on one side and blind belief in material comforts on the other.

That book of a hundred tiny chapters was a dazzling achievement, funny and awkward. Queuing up behind it, though, was this big, very long post- Wende meditation on the significance of the new unified Germany. Too Far Afield has been awaiting publication in English since 1995. The novel is the story of 70-year-old Theo Wuttke, known as Fonty - a file courier in a literary archive, impromptu public speaker and, crucially, a devotee and avatar of the great 19th-century Prussian novelist Theodor Fontane, who is referred to throughout as "the Immortal". Fontane is best known outside Germany as the author of Effi Briest, which was beautifully filmed by Fassbinder. Incidentally, this edition's otherwise helpful chronology may throw readers off course by adding 20 years to Fontane's life - he died in 1898.

In the company of a Stasi double-agent, Hoftaller, his "day-and-night shadow", Wuttke trails through the Berlin of 1989 to the sound of the "wall-peckers" hacking away at the divided city's symbol, stopping (for example) to recite Fontane's Scottish ballads to an enthusiastic audience of shoppers and punks in a branch of McDonald's. As the transition towards full unification progresses, Fonty finds his quasi- celebrity rewarded with a post in the Treuhand or "Handover Trust", the agency devoted to reconciling the requirements of the Workers' and Peasants' State with those of the triumphant west.

Wuttke proves as cussed as his creator, as needling as Theodor Fontane himself. A feverish epiphany merges Fonty with his model, simultaneously bringing the two Germanies and the two centuries together.

The interconnections on which the novel relies are clever and elaborate: the revolution of 1848 compared both with the "pseudo- revolution" of 1968 and the dismantling of the Wall; the sly struggle against censorship and surveillance in post-1871 Prussia (after the first German unification) and in the GDR, problems of state patronage and compromise; and, ultimately, the betrayal of a people in favour of material gain for a few.

God, but it's hard going. Too Far Afield is not quite as dismaying as its baffling predecessor, The Call of the Toad, but it does require an unusual degree of devotion. And for the English-speaking reader, there's an additional problem. From the first, Grass assumes an intimate familiarity with Fontane's novels and with the attitudes their characters represent.

One scene of great hilarity, on a boating lake, revolves around the phrase "Gideon is better than Botho". This lapidary sentence, from the novel Delusions and Confusions, would be known to most German schoolchildren, along with its meaning - more or less, "the honest workman is better than the spineless aristocrat". Does it have the same resonance here? I wouldn't have thought so.

Such allusions pop up on every page: references to the materialism of Frau Jenny Treibel in the (chillingly sarcastic) novel of the same name, the struggle between poacher and forester in the novel Quitt, poor Effi Briest's father who supplies Too Far Afield with its title...

There are precedents, of course. Another Nobel laureate, José Saramago, assumed an intimate knowledge of the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa for his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. But, perhaps inadvertently, Too Far Afield seems to suggest that reunification is a private matter for Germany alone, to be dealt with in a private language.

Maybe a nation undergoing such a powerful shift needs to reassess its own continuities, on its own terms, before it can present a confident public face. Often, though, all the outsider can manage is a glimpse of something fleetingly understood. Grass's novel may deal with the perils of unification, but it exemplifies the dangers that arise when you don't have a common currency.

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