"The children must never find out about what their father has suppressed," writes Günter Grass in The Box: Tales From the Darkroom, his new memoir in the form of a novel. "Not a word about guilt and other unwelcome deliveries." The last time Grass wrote about his life, in the more straightforward 2007 memoir Peeling the Onion, suppression and guilt were all that readers wanted to talk about: in particular, the revelation that the teenage Grass, during the last days of the Second World War, had served in the Waffen SS, and concealed this fact for the next six decades. The story made headlines, and not just in book-review sections, because Grass has long been more than just another novelist. Ever since the publication of The Tin Drum, in 1959, he has been something like the conscience of postwar Germany—a position solidified when he won the Nobel Prize in 1999.
In his new book, the 83-year-old writer is still reckoning with the past. But this time he turns his attention to a different, and even more complicated, kind of accounting: the one that every parent owes to his children. This means exploring types of guilt and penance that are just as painful, if less sensational, than anything in Peeling the Onion: "Now the inadequate father hopes the children will feel some compassion. For they cannot sweep aside his life, nor he theirs, pretending that none of it ever happened."
The conceit of The Box is that, rather than write directly about his experience of fatherhood, Grass allows his children to speak on their own behalf. In each chapter, he imagines a group of his offspring getting together for a meal and talking into a tape recorder about their early lives. The voices come out in a jumble, usually unattributed, without quotation marks; as a result, it is hard to disentangle their individual stories. They become "the children," a chorus or jury, setting down evidence and passing judgment on their famous father.
This takes more than a few sessions, because, as the reader learns, Grass has eight children and stepchildren, by four different women—a family that's not so much "blended" as pureed. The four oldest—twins Pat and Jorsch, Lara, and Taddel—were the products of Grass' first marriage. As that marriage was breaking up, he had a daughter, Lena, by his mistress, before meeting the woman who would become his second wife, bringing her two sons, Jasper and Paul, into the Grass ménage. Not until he had met Jasper and Paul's mother did Grass learn that, in between wives, he had also begotten another daughter, Nana, by yet another girlfriend.
It is easy to imagine that the products of such a family might have more grievances than those of more conventional backgrounds. For Grass to open his writing to his children's voices appears, then, like a gesture of reparation, and a remarkably vulnerable one: "The father insists on having everything recorded. From now on, the children have the floor." But of course, even as Grass claims to be literally recording his children's voices, the reader knows that he is actually inventing them. (He even makes it deliberately unclear whether the names he gives them in The Box are their real names.) He has, in fact, "authored" his children twice over: first by conceiving them, then by turning them into semi-fictional characters. "Typical, there he goes, lying again," says one of them in The Box. "Just as we, sitting here talking and talking, can't be sure what he's going to talk us into next."
Is writing in this way the act of a generous father, maybe even a penitent one, or of a tyrannical egotist? This ambiguity is what gives The Box its modest but genuine power. Grass brings the question to the fore by introducing into the seemingly factual accounts of his children's lives—the houses they lived in, the schools they attended, their first loves, their family quarrels—a blatantly magical-realist device of the sort he employs in his novels. This is the box of the title, which is actually an old-fashioned box camera, a popular Agfa model made in Germany in the 1930s.