Peeling the Onion
(By Günter Grass; New York: Harcourt; 425 pages; $26 cloth)
In 50 years of writing fiction, Günter Grass has shown a predilection for unusually compelling characters. His 1962 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, is narrated by a 3-year old genius. In Peeling the Onion, however, Grass tackles what might be his most elusive protagonist yet: himself. Given how much of his life Grass has spent in the public eye—backing socialist candidates, haranguing German society into remembrance—it's almost a shock to realize that Grass had an inner life before his great fame. But here it is—Grass the mama's boy, promising to whisk her off to holidays; Grass the young liar, making up fables to entertain family. Public reaction to his memoir has focused on the realization that Grass was an ardent believer in the Nazi project. He signed up for the Jungfolk at 10 and was drafted, at 17, into the Wafen SS. This is unfortunate, because the book revolves less around his military service than it does the private domestic silences that have plagued him since 1945. Grass writes that he never asked what happened to a pilot uncle who was shot down and executed by the Nazis. He did not ask after a teacher who vanished. He did not inquire as to the fate of a fellow soldier who would not carry his rifle. Grass has said that he wrote Peeling the Onion to try to understand these silences, to ask his younger self why he didn't have the courage to ask these questions. As such, he eschews normal storytelling and finds a narrative format that alludes to the shape and texture of memory. Grass forever winds toward a story, investigates it and in some cases imagines what could have happened. It is startling how beautiful a structure can be formed in mimicry of an amnesia so horrendous in its consequences.
Review by John Freeman
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