On the heels of Grass’s Nobel Prize comes this graceful English version of his most recent (1995) and most controversial fiction: a potent criticism of German reunification, cast in the semi-fabulistic form employed so memorably in mega-novels like The Tin Drum and The Flounder.
The story’s set mostly in and around Berlin shortly after the “fall,” in 1989, of the Wall dividing East from West Germany. Its principal characters are two elderly men. One is former war correspondent and public East German intellectual Theo Wuttke, now employed as a superannuated office boy by the Truehand, the agency entrusted with steering the former East Germany’s enterprises and properties into the “new” country’s economic mainstream. The other is Ludwig Hoftaller, a vaguely sinister (though perfectly affable) figure whose history as a spy and informer extends (in magical-realist fashion) back to the 19th century, when Bismarck’s “unification” of warring German states bred the self-glorifying energies that would erupt in world war. The consequent linking of Germany’s past and present (a recurring theme in Grass’s fiction) is underscored by Wuttke’s fascination with classic German writer Theodor Fontane (coworkers mockingly nickname Wuttke “Fonty”), whose famous 1895 novel, Effi Briest, supplies the complacent repeated phrase—urging one to sticking to one’s business and avoid trouble—that gives Grass’s novel its deeply ironic title. Too Far Afield is reflective and intermittently discursive, perhaps as much a meditation on aging and facing death (and taking stock of how honorably one has lived) as it is a dramatization of the repetitive pomposity and folly of Germany then and now. Without some knowledge of recent German history, many readers may find much of it heavy going (though a helpful glossary does precede the text proper). Still, it’s filled with vivid and provocative symbolic incident (such as Wuttke’s efforts to “preserve” an antiquated elevator in the building that formerly housed the Nazi Air Ministry).
A rich, troubling work that offers incontrovertible evidence of this great writer’s undiminished artistry, integrity, and passion.