Born in South Africa, Dan Jacobson was Reader in English and then Professor of English at University College London between 1979 and 1994, and he is now Professor Emeritus. His many books include The Trap, A Dance in the Sun, Time of Arrival and Other Essays (which won a Somerset Maugham Award), The Confessions of Joseph Baisz and The God-Fearer. His most recent novel is All for Love. In this essay, Dan discusses Gunter Grass's Crabwalk.
Dan Jacobson on Crabwalk by Gunter Grass
No, I didn't read Gunther Grass's latest novel, Crabwalk, because of the furore over the author's belated revelation that he had served in Hitler's Waffen SS during the last months of the Second World War. I was in fact already half-way through the novel when I first heard on the radio of the author's 'confession'. Surprisingly enough, I felt something like relief on hearing the announcement. The moral contortions and obsessions of the novel suddenly seemed to me less mysterious - though no less insistent - than they had before.
Grass's first and best-known novel, The Tin Drum, was published at the end of the 1950s. I read it several years after its appearance in English, and was greatly impressed by it. The same, though to a lesser degree, applied to its immediate successors, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. Then I drifted away from his work: I simply couldn't engage with the books that followed. What drew me towards Crabwalk, after such a long abstinence, was a piece in a newspaper which spoke of the novel as a fictionalized account of the destruction of the German cruise-liner, the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff, shortly before the end of the Second World War. About that event I knew little. So I went to the internet and learned that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine had produced the greatest single disaster in maritime history. Something like 9000 people went down with the ship - about six times the number who lost their lives in the Titanic - most of them women, children, wounded soldiers and civilian refugees fleeing from the takeover of Danzig (Gdansk) by the Soviet army.
So why should that event be of special interest to me, or anyone else, today? After all this time? After all the crimes committed by Germans during the 12 years of their infatuation with Adolf Hitler? From this distance one might even be permitted a moment of ironic satisfaction in recalling that the liner had been built at Hitler's personal command - partly to remind his people of the vileness and treachery of all Jews (see below); and partly to enable his loyal, pure-blooded, working-class Germans to enjoy overseas cruises, via his pre-war 'Strength through Joy' programme. However, just a few months before finding out more about the beginning and end of the Gustloff than I had known before, I'd been reading The Natural History of Destruction, a collection of essays by another German writer, W.G. Sebald, who had revived my curiosity about the post-war response of decent Germans, intelligent Germans, thoughtful Germans, to the unspeakable nature of what their people had done to others - the Jews especially - during the Second World War.
As it happens, the 'natural history' examined by Sebald is not devoted to the war crimes of the Nazis, but to the destruction wreaked on Germany itself by the incessant and largely indiscriminate attacks of the RAF and the USAAF during the last three years of the war. That aerial campaign had ravaged many of Germany's major cities and slaughtered some 600,000 of its citizens. How then, Sebald asks, had the Germans managed to put it all behind them, almost as if the catastrophe had never happened? What was the secret of their 'national amnesia' about what they had been put through? He finds the answer to lie partly in their shame at knowing that they had brought this catastrophe on themselves, since it had come about as a direct result of the enthusiasm with which so many of them had followed Hitler's demented leadership. Shame of that kind, however, mingled with other, seemingly contradictory sources of bitterness: among them the shame of having been defeated in a war which, through their chosen leaders, they had begun; of finding themselves a conquered and occupied people for the second time in a half-century; of knowing their immediate past to be regarded by outsiders with almost universal horror. And beyond that, Sebald suggests, the sheer scale of the destruction of their towns and cities was beyond their grasp. So they did not try to grasp it; instead they set about the task of rebuilding all that lay around them as rapidly and comprehensively as they could. What they wanted was 'a new, faceless reality, pointing the population exclusively towards the future and enjoining on it a silence about the past'.
In effect, the Germans found themselves deprived, among much else, of the right to mourn their own losses. To the peoples around them German suffering counted for little when it was set against what they had inflicted on their victims. Given an accountancy of this grim kind, specific events like the fire-bombing of Dresden, say, or the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff were bound to appear inconsequential. Nevertheless, it remained incontrovertible that there had been no military or strategic rationale to either of these last-named acts of destruction. They took place just months before the end of the war, when Germany was already being overrun by the allied armies; the city of Dresden was of no significance to the German war effort overall; the Wilhelm Gustloff, which had spent most of the war moored near Danzig as a hospital ship, posed no threat of any kind to anyone. The commander of the Russian submarine, Marinesko by name, who dispatched three torpedoes into its side knew nothing about the people crammed on board; and the Russian authorities themselves left his feat uncelebrated - not out of moral misgiving but simply because Marinesko was already in bad odour with his superiors. For drunkenness, chiefly.
Now - some 60 years later, scuttling sideways, as crabs invariably do - Gunther Grass, the creator of the dwarfish, anarchic, anti-hero of The Tin Drum, returns to Danzig, the city of his boyhood, to present, among other things, a deliberately fragmented yet detailed and historically accurate account of the construction and eventual sinking of the Gustloff. This element of the book is run together with a wholly fictional first-person account by the narrator of the effects of the disaster on himself and the members of his family. In fact, he claims to have been born either on the ship just before the first torpedo struck it, or possibly in one of the few lifeboats that managed to get away before it went down. Obviously he has no recollection of the event; his knowledge is derived wholly from the unreliable memory of his mother, who, having been a detached if docile subject of the Nazi Reich, then became a dutiful citizen of the German Democratic Republic before adapting herself, apparently with little difficulty, to life in what is now the reunited Federal Republic. As for the narrator himself, he is now an ageing, petty journalist by trade, separated from his schoolmistress wife, and the father of a son, Konrad, with whom he has always got on badly.
Via a geometry of crazed demi-parallels and bifurcations, all moving in zig-zag, crablike fashion, the narrator tells a double, treble, quadruple story. First, there is the story of the ship itself, which was given its name in honour of a minor Nazi functionary murdered in the mid-30s by a certain David Frankfurter, a Jewish fugitive from Hitler's Germany. This element of the novel includes an account of the liner's pre-war cruises (designed for maximum propagandistic effect in Germany and abroad), and of its inglorious wartime service and doomed last voyage. Accompanying and interrupting these episodes is the narrator's retrospective view of his own unsuccessful career and his unhappy relationships with his mother, wife and son. We are also given an intermittent account (factual, once again) of the subsequent lives of David Frankfurter, the assassin, who is eventually released from prison in Switzerland and settles in Israel; and of Marinesko, the drunken submariner, whose heroic deed in sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff the Soviet government eventually honours, long after his death, by putting up a statue to him. (By then the memorial erected by the Nazis to commemorate Gustloff's death at the hand of 'A Jew' - as their inscription had put it - has been quietly destroyed by the masters of the communist Democratic Republic. 'That's how it goes with monuments,' the narrator remarks laconically.) Coming closer to the present day, we learn of the narrator's involvement with two shadowy figures whom he 'meets' through an anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi website, devoted to celebrating the purposes for which the Gustloff had been built and mourning its fate. Styled 'www.blutzeuge' (i.e. 'www.martyrdom'), the website is conducted by someone who has himself chosen to honour the Nazi 'martyr' Wilhelm Gustloff and the ship named after him by adopting the soubriquet 'Wilhelm'. Out there in cyberspace, his chief antagonist and most persistent critic calls himself 'David', in honour of the original David Frankfurter. 'Bosom enemies', the narrator calls the relationship between the two of them - each being as obsessive as the other in pursuing their macabre hobby.
Not even at this point, however, has the reader of Crabwalk come to an end of the compulsive doublings-up, inversions and backtrackings of which so much of the book is composed. From time to time, for example, the narrator engages also in a private debate with a 'bosom enemy' of his own: a nameless ally and adversary whom he refers to as 'he who claims to know me' and 'the boss' and other such terms, and at whose direct command he claims to be writing his story. The reader has to draw the conclusion that this know-all 'boss' is a surrogate for the book's real author, Gunther Grass: by trade a novelist given to inventing people, saying what he likes about them, and making them do whatever he wishes. There are still more twists and turns, mergings and separations, to come in the novel; but those who have followed me so far may now understand why I suddenly felt enlightened about what I had been reading when I heard that its begetter, the famous novelist and Nobel prizewinner, had for some 60 years been hiding the truth about his wartime service in the Waffen SS. 'No wonder!' - that was the first exclamation that sprang into my mind. No wonder the book is such a phantasmagoric mixture of fact and fiction; assertion and denial; remembrance and amnesia; disguise and revelation; accusation and confession; insistence and disruption; claustrophobia and ruinous incoherence. Its wit and sadness notwithstanding - and there is plenty of both in the book - it is a mess; a marsh; a failure.
For 60 years Grass had made his reputation by telling oblique, painful fables about his own people, and by extension, about all other peoples too. On the strength of his novels he had become a major public figure, and had repeatedly used his status to pass moral judgements on life in Europe and elsewhere. Throughout his career he had claimed that during the last months of Hitler's war he had served as an unwilling conscript in an anti-aircraft battery; now, having admitted that he had actually been enrolled in the Waffen SS, of all units, he says that he never volunteered for service in that branch of the army and had 'never fired a shot' while in it. It may well be that these statements are true; but why should we believe them, once we know his previous description of his wartime service to have been a lie? A lie sustained for 60 years, no less? Lech Walesa, the former leader of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, who did as much to bring down the Soviet empire as any other single individual (and who, like Grass, was honoured by having been given the Freedom of the city of Gdansk, the home town of them both), has angrily said that the revelation has been timed merely to bump up the sales of Grass's forthcoming autobiography. Others have suggested that he had to come clean anyway, in order to pre-empt the publication of the facts of his wartime service in a biography being prepared by someone else.
I have no idea where the truth might be found. What I do know is that in Crabwalk Grass has dived deeper than ever before into a medium where almost every assertion made about the fictive characters turns out to be another kind of falsehood, and where the narrator himself disavows responsibility for what he has done by claiming that the book has been written under duress, since it has all been done to oblige his invisible 'boss'. (And to what end? About that we must make up our own minds.) In the latter part of Crabwalk, Konrad, the narrator's neo-Nazi son, is unsurprisingly revealed to be the webmaster 'Wilhelm'. He and 'David', his erstwhile combatant on the website, arrange to meet; they wander about the town of Schwerin, in which Konrad lives with his mother and where the Gustloff memorial used to be housed; they eat ice-cream together and quarrel briefly; then Konrad takes a revolver out of his pocket and shoots at 'David', firing exactly four shots at him, as the original David had done in the killing of the original Wilhelm Gustloff. 'David' dies; Konrad is tried for murder; and in the course of the trial it becomes clear that he has chosen to believe that this 'David' is a Jew (which he is not; he is in fact the son of a Protestant pastor). Thus in killing him Konrad-'Wilhelm' believes he is taking a precise revenge for the original deed. But he is doing nothing of the kind: he is merely consigning himself to a long term in prison.
And what becomes of him there? He appears to lose interest in the whole business; but others do not. At the urging of his exigent 'boss', the narrator goes surfing on the net once again, and what does he find there if not yet another neo-Nazi website, 'kameradschaft-konrad' by name? Set up by people unknown, it is dedicated to cherishing Konrad's lofty ideals...
'It doesn't end. Never will it end.' Those are the last words of the novel.