Nobelist Grass (Too Far Afield, 2000, etc.) ponders guilt and memory in an unsettling tale that draws from a forgotten maritime disaster.
When a Russian submarine torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945, narrator Paul Pokriefke was still in his unmarried teenaged mother’s womb. Thousands went down with the ship, but Tulla Pokriefke was rescued and gave birth on a torpedo boat. Resettled in East Germany, she endlessly recalls that fatal day and badgers her son to write it all down for future generations. Paul eventually opts for life as a hack journalist and slips into West Berlin. In the story’s present, he is under orders from his employer to unravel the chain of events that led from Wilhelm Gustloff’s enthusiastic proselytizing for the Nazi party in Switzerland to his assassination in 1936 by Jewish medical student David Frankfurter, his apotheosis as a fascist martyr (the cruise ship named after him provided National Socialist vacations for the masses), and his rediscovery in the 1990s on a neofascist Web site created by Paul’s son Konrad. Estranged from his divorced parents, Konrad has fallen under the influence of Tulla, an implacable survivor á la Mother Courage, who gives her alienated grandson the computer that enables him to communicate with others seeking to rewrite Germany’s past. He forms a combative yet oddly jocular online relationship with “David,” who offers unwelcome reminders of the Nazi regime’s genocidal underpinnings. Their real-life meeting provides the grim climax of a narrative that views fascist hate-mongering, Stalinist lies, capitalist corruption, and the eternal failures of parents with the same angry disdain. Mitigating humor comes from Paul’s decision to “sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways,” often teasing the reader by veering off at climactic moments to ratchet up the tension before coming to his bleak conclusion: “Never will it end.”
Grass as lucid, sardonic, and unsparing as always.