Our Dumb Century

Time out of joint: German author Günter Grass writes 100 years in 300 pages

In calling his latest book My Century, newly crowned Nobel laureate Günter Grass might seem to be making a statement akin to James Cameron's infamous Oscar-night ejaculation, "I'm the king of the world." But for Grass, the title is thematically appropriate. The German novelist has been in the business of turning history on its head for forty years. In his playfully dour masterpiece The Tin Drum, Grass chronicled Hitler's rise to power from the perspective of a grotesque hunchback who decides to stop growing at age three. In The Flounder, Grass covered 4,000 years of history from a culinary and sexual perspective. Given this track record, Grass ought to have had no problem with a mere century. Not quite. While My Century (Harcourt) skillfully presents the highlights of Germany's past century, it doesn't pause long enough to give them the scent of fiction or the depth of study that earned Grass his laurels.

Part of the reason Grass can't plumb history's murkier depths is that he has to keep moving. Every year from the past century--from 1900 to 1999--gets a new story, and, usually, a different narrator (with the exception of the two world wars, and student uprisings in the Sixties). Some tales are confessionals told to the reader or an unseen listener. Others demonstrate Grass's facility with documentary and dramatic forms--letters, overheard conversations, etc. Out of this gumbo emerge characters from all walks of life: Antique collectors, gramophone moguls, soccer fans, housewives--you name it, they're in here. An occasional historical figure trots onstage, such as when Erich Remarque meets with a pro-war novelist over cocktails to discuss writing about war.

In large part, though, Grass's narrators are remarkable for their relative smallness in relation to the magnificence of history's events. There is the airplane pilot who flew the pride and joy of German engineering, the LZ-126, to the United States and circled Manhattan's skyline in 1926. There is the narrator of "1935," who witnessed the building of the autobahn and remembers how an exhausted worker praised Hitler for having "set in motion an enterprise that will symbolize the vitality and greatness of our age for centuries to come." Grass seems to be aiming at giving history a human face, and in a Ken Burns-documentary kind of way, he does.

People remember the raising of suspension bridges, the sinking of submarines, and the dedication of now-famous monuments. One can almost imagine a German version of Shelby Foote narrating these tales in a lugubrious patter, accompanied by a slide show of silent photo images. Unless preternaturally well-versed in German history, however, most American readers may find their eyes glazing over. While some tales feature cultural icons (VW), movies (Jaws), and sporting events (the 1960 Olympics) familiar to Americans, others describe items, such as German radio programs, boxing and soccer matches, or cabaret singers, that will draw blanks.

In what might have been an attempt to give these tales some artistic continuity, Grass raises the curious specter of two or three symbols throughout the book. The spiked German military helmet that Remarque remembers over lunch is appreciated in another story by a design and history buff. The Opel automobile one man spent his days building returns in another story gathering rust in another man's garage, its luster diminished by the years since its owner, the man's brother, died in the war. While these symbols illuminate the ways individuals mesh with the greater fiber of commerce and politics, for the most part they come across as cheeky attempts to make sure we're all listening.

What's more interesting than such games are the tales that, like Milan Kundera's work, feature events forgotten by historiography. The schoolteacher who narrates "1972" remembers the anguish he felt when turning in a radical who had once been an intimate. The woman who narrates "1946" recalls the filthy task of cleaning up the rubble left by the Allied bombing of German cities. In such cases Grass gives a story to the people who have lost their words to the steamroller of events.

But with a mere three pages to tell their stories, most of these narrators are shortchanged. What commands the spotlight for most of this show, sadly, is the historical details all of us know--Hitler's rise to power, the oil crisis of the Seventies, the falling of the Berlin wall--and not the people whom Grass has conjured to tell us about them. In this regard, My Century is too much Grass's and history's, and not enough theirs.

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