April 14, 2015 By Tarun

Stilled, the Drumbeat : Gunter Grass (1927-2015)


On Monday, Gunter Grass, one of the rarest rebels in the literary scene, bid us goodbye. Noted for candour in making judgments on issues, sharpness in his arguments, unwavering passion for life, lucidity in prose, the Nobel Laureate died in the northern German city of Lübeck, his home for decades. He was 87 and was suffering from lung infection.

As a teenager, I was shocked by the reveling beauty of Grass’ Tin Drum, when I watched the movie adaptation of the work, which was simultaneously a political satire and magical realism at its best. Though the film was lauded for the brilliant filmmaking skills of Volker Schlondorff, a leading figure in the German New Wave Movement, someone who has read the novel first would think that the great filmmaker was playing a second fiddle on screen. The epic proportion of the work demanded only the hand of Schlondorff to adapt it for screen.

What makes Tin Drum stand out among the anti-Holocaust fictions is the sheer beauty of satire it employs and the piquant sarcasm in Grass’ prose. Also, he is able to convince us that fascism is not particularly a German vintage; it can be repetitive and can transform us into a dystopia where we are all pigmies with nothing but our willingness or hesitation to drum the sheer nakedness around into the whole world. Fascism occurs and is likely to occur for that matter when we try to obliterate our share of the pie. In Germany, those who have the darker past of connivance in the project of Adolf Hitler clam up fearing post-Holocaust sentiments against them. Grass equated this to keeping silence in the event of fascism and declared that he himself was a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II.

All his works-Tin Drum (1959), Cat and Mouse (1961), Dog Years (1963)-which constitute the Danzig trilogy-, The Flounder (1977), The Rat (1986), My Century (1999), Peeling Onions (2006)-stand out for Grass’ commitment to the excruciating events that disfigure our lives and prove that our capacity for destruction is far more lethal than our capacity for love, though the latter can be the only cure for the former. His was the role of Oskar Matzerath, the protagonist of Tin Drum-whose physical growth has been stunned but the perception and consciousness of adulthood growing acute and keener. The role of all intellectuals is to mentally resist the pigmy-hood that the state slaps on our consciousness. Their role is to beat the drum louder and louder and say the truth with all the might one can muster. Grass did this till the end of his life. One instance of this is his stance against Israel, which is quite rare among the anti-Holocaust intellectuals in Germany. In the case of Grass, sympathy for Jews has never been translated into support for Zionism and Israel. Much to the frustration of people like Netanyahu, Grass wrote a poem What Must Be Said, denouncing Israel’s nuclear program and aggression toward Iran. In the poem, Grass declares that he is breaking silence over the issue- the silence he maintained fearing the anti-Semitic label-and that Israel poses greater threat to world peace than Iran. The following is the poem in English Translation of Heather Horn (Courtesy: The Atlantic Monthly)

What Must Be Said

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long

What clearly is and has been

Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors

Are at best footnotes.

It is the alleged right to first strike

That could annihilate the Iranian people–

Enslaved by a loud-mouth

And guided to organized jubilation–

Because in their territory,

It is suspected, a bomb is being built.


Yet why do I forbid myself

To name that other country

In which, for years, even if secretly,

There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand

But beyond control, because no inspection is available?


The universal concealment of these facts,

To which my silence subordinated itself,

I sense as incriminating lies

And force–the punishment is promised

As soon as it is ignored;

The verdict of “anti-Semitism” is familiar.


Now, though, because in my country

Which from time to time has sought and confronted

Its very own crime

That is without compare

In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also

With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares

A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,

Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence

Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,

But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,

I say what must be said.


Why though have I stayed silent until now?

Because I thought my origin,

Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged

Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound

And wish to stay bound,

From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.


Why do I say only now,

Aged and with my last ink,

That the nuclear power of Israel endangers

The already fragile world peace?

Because it must be said

What even tomorrow may be too late to say;

Also because we–as Germans burdened enough–

Could be the suppliers to a crime

That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity

Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.


And granted: I am silent no longer

Because I am tired of the hypocrisy

Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped

That this will free many from silence,

That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger

To renounce violence and

Likewise insist

That an unhindered and permanent control

Of the Israeli nuclear potential

And the Iranian nuclear sites

Be authorized through an international agency

By the governments of both countries.


Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,

Even more, all people, that in this

Region occupied by mania

Live cheek by jowl among enemies,

And also us, to be helped.

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