My Century by Günter Grass

The novel that triggered his Nobel Prize

Salon

December 1999

Günter Grass’ new novel, My Century, is a pastiche of 100 little stories rooted in the political surges of Germany’s violent and fascinating past 100 years. Grass has been a Nobel candidate for long enough to know that the prize for literature typically goes to writers with political stances (preferably left of center), so it’s possible to see the novel as a shameless bid for laurels: In this double-anniversary year of 1999 (40 years after the publication of The Tin Drum, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall), in the wake of a book as millennium-gimmicky and politically minded as this one, how could the Swedish Academy not have awarded the prize to Grass?

He deserves it, of course. He should have gotten it years ago, after “The Danzig Trilogy.” But the new book has a shrill and personal tone that conjures up Oskar Mazerath raising his glass-shattering voice before the committee: “Hey! Guys! Remember me? Come on!”

My Century tells the saga of German history since 1900 in a noisy fugue of voices, with each brief chapter assigned a single year. The “my” in the title is both personal and paternal. Grass turns up as a character 13 times, but the other voices are his as well, in the sense that Grass regards himself as the voice of Germany. It’s an immodest conceit, but it holds the book together. Soldiers, housewives, cops, journalists, grandparents, activists, a professor, a dirigible pilot, a businesswoman and ravers in the Berlin Love Parade all contribute their little share to a mosaic of the German nation in war and peace. The result is not a novel so much as a scrapbook of commentary, because what drives you through isn’t story or theme — it’s rank curiosity about what Günter Grass will have to say about some juicy year. This tactic assumes, of course, that you care about Grass or about German politics; if you don’t, My Century may read like an elaborate inside joke.

He puts both friends and enemies into the book. Willy Brandt, friend and former chancellor, becomes a moral lightning rod for German and Polish racism. One narrator is irritated by “that writer with the walrus mustache” — that is, Grass; another refers to “the man who’s putting me down on paper here and thinks he can give me a grade (social behavior: unsatisfactory).” These bits are funny but shallow. Grass also has a sublime talent for common voices, especially women’s, and the best chapters are narrated by salty grandmothers. “1946” is a reminiscence by one of the so-called rubble women who cleaned up Berlin after World War II, brick by brick. “Rubble women,” she says. “Not a man in the bunch. Wasn’t enough of them. And them that was, they just stood around and did nothing or else ran the black market. No dirty work for them!”

Unfortunately, regional voices never survive translation, and this chapter is a prime example of how much weaker the book is in English. Translator Michael Henry Heim’s version of “1946” ends with a simple reunion in a cafe — “coffee and cake at Schilling’s. I always get a kick out of it” — instead of the original’s noisy Kaffeeklatsch of ex-rubble women, with its echoes of personal triumph. “Is immer lustig da,” the final line goes in German (literally, “It’s always happy there”), and that “lustig” — which can also mean raucous or uproarious — stands out after pages of vividly rendered suffering and destruction. The original has not just untranslatable voices but also very translatable overtones that Heim doesn’t or can’t render. His English tastes like thin beer next to Grass’ schnapps.

The chapters that work well in English include accounts of a fictional meeting between war novelists Ernst Jünger and Erich Maria Remarque, who spend a wine-soaked meal (and five chapters) arguing and reminiscing about the First World War (“1914-1918”); escapes from East Berlin through hand-dug tunnels and sewers (“1961”); an elderly banker and onetime collaborator with the Nazis who becomes a punk (“1978”); a retiree who hunts mushrooms in Germany after the Chernobyl meltdown (“1986”); and the Berlin Wall’s retirement (“1989”). “My Century” remains a beguiling people’s history of Germany as long as Grass resists his urge to go on record with moral and political stances. But Grass, like the Swedish Academy, knows he has a bully pulpit, and when he fails to resist that urge, his novel becomes a book for the moment instead of the ages — mortalized, you might say, by the master’s public squabbles

Michael Scott Moore

Politics

Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused

Culture

I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

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NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.

Nazis

Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.

Surfing

It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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