I stumbled over Günter Grass’ “Crabwalk” in the library earlier this month, and I’ve just finished reading it, because it’s due on Friday. As a teenager, I snuck my brothers into the local movie theatre to see “The Tin Drum” (the 12 year old loved it). I read the book in college, and I read Grass’ autobiography when it came out this past summer.
While I knew in the interim Grass had won the Nobel, and angered the mayor of Danzig when he revealed his SS service during the last months of World War Two, I hadn’t read much else of his. “Crabwalk” is basically set in the two German cities I know best, Schwerin (the capital of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania) and Berlin. I have spent about 36 hours in Munich.
Not only do I remember the places that Grass describes over and over- Lake Schwerin, the back of the zoo, the St. Nicholas Church- but the event that he keeps describing, that “crabwalks” its way through the book, is the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I know two women who as small children were evacuate from East Prussia via the Baltic. And since I started reading the book I’ve been wondering if either of them could have been on board. One of them is a woman I met at a restaurant in Lübeck; the other is the mother of a friend of mine. It makes a better story if they were, but I doubt it.
It isn’t only the crabwalk of the mind and memory that Grass is getting at. It’s the crabwalk of history itself. You take and use as much history as you need, go back as far as you like and you pull a narrative together. You can’t go all the way back in history, as broadly as possible so that you describe everything that may have had an impact on a single event. That would never work. So you crabwalk back, take some, jump ahead ten years, double back three, and on and on. The event that precedes the sinking of the ship is the killing of the man for whom the ship is named, a low-level Nazi official. He was killed by a German Jewish medical student in Switzerland. You go, “Humph, interesting,” and then Grass has jumped ahead two generations and the protagonist’s son has allied himself with neo-Nazis on the internet, which ends in him committing murder. He isn’t like the skinheads in Rostock at that time (late 1990s), nor the unemployed kids I saw in Schwerin who diligently crossed out pro-Nazi graffiti and covered it with anti-Nazi graffiti. Konrad simply has incredibly poor judgment and an inability to learn from his mistakes. He’s pathetic.
I may have to buy the book so I can read it again.