Peeling the Onion
As the Nobel Prize-winning German writer Günter Grass recalls, there were three hungers that consumed him throughout his adolescence and the years leading up to the publication of his first, and most well-known, novel, The Tin Drum. The first was a literal hunger, born out of his internment in a POW camp after World War II; the second hunger, also physical, was for sexual intimacy; the third hunger was that for consuming and creating art. "This desire to conquer all with images was insatiable," he recalls.
As engrossing as creative rationing methods and barnyard losses of virginity are, it is the unfurling of this third hunger that makes Grass' memoir, Peeling the Onion, worthwhile. After all, why do we bother reading memoirs of writers other than to explore the depths of their creative genius, to hunt for the glimmers of experience that will eventually surface into the episodes and characters of loved works? There are plenty of these glimmers on display here, and Grass is all too quick to point out their ramifications on his creative life: an apprenticeship for a Düsseldorf stonecutter who specialized in tombstones leads to an entire chapter on the practice in The Tin Drum; Grass' fellow labor serviceman in the German military is resurrected years later as the hero of Cat and Mouse; an entire trilogy of novels (Drum, Cat, and Dog Years) sprouts from the history of the Grass' Danzig hometown.
Then, of course, there is the blatant admission of Grass' loyal service to the Nazi Party as a panzer gunner for the Waffen SS--an admission that has struck many cultural high priests as hypocritical and too little too late, given the way in which Grass' early novels tore into his country's sordid past while the author refused to acknowledge his own. "What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame," he writes.
As heavy as this confession reads, it's just a minor episode in the peeling back of Grass' life, which is suffused with serene recollections on everything from the author's prized Olivetti portable typewriter (a wedding gift), his addiction to cigarette- and pipe-smoking, and his days throwing dice and predicting the future with a fellow POW whom, he claims, was Joseph Ratzinger. No doubt some people will read Peeling the Onion only to hear Grass apologize for his allegiance to Nazi Germany--what a shame it would be if they sidetracked the personal accounts and creative inspirations that form the real center of this engaging and poetically crafted memoir.