Günter Grass reckons with the past in The Box.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 22 2010 6:53 AM

What the Children Knew

Günter Grass is still reckoning with the past in his fictional memoir.

(Continued from Page 1)

This particular camera belongs to a mysterious older woman named Marie, a close friend of Grass', and the snapshots it takes are equally mysterious. As she puts it, "My box takes pictures of things that aren't there. And it sees things that weren't there. Or shows things you'd never in your wildest dreams imagine." Sometimes, people appear in these pictures as they dream of being in their fantasies. A daughter in her Communion dress is shown "splattered with chocolate sauce," because she was longing to get the ceremony over with and rush to the dessert table; another girl wants a puppy, and Marie's photo shows her with a puppy.

But this is the least of the camera's powers. When the fictional Grass asks Marie to take pictures—of a house, a landscape, or odds and ends like "fish skeletons, gnawed bones, that kind of thing"—the result is a vision of the past or the future, which the novelist can put to use in his books. When he was writing the novel Cat and Mouse, Grass asked Marie to photograph cats; when he was writing Dog Years, she took pictures of dogs. And sometimes, "when she was furious," Marie's photos would reveal grotesque punishments. A snapshot of the disobedient Taddel and Jasper reveals them "transplanted … to the Middle Ages, condemn[ed] to child labor on a treadmill … quivering under lashes."

It does not take long to figure out Grass' allegory: The camera is an emblem of the novelist's imagination, and Marie is a homely figure for the muse. By making things so literal, Grass seems to want to pose in the simplest, most childlike terms the question that dominates the book. Is it a blessing or a curse to have a writer for a father, to have your childhood populated by his uncanny visions? Sometimes the children express their love and wonder for Marie's photos; but what comes across most clearly is their jealousy of Marie. "He always has something to hide," they complain into a kind of collective chorus. "That's why no one knows what goes on in his head."

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But Marie has special access, which none of Grass' wives or lovers or children can rival. "Of all the women I've loved, or still love, Mariechen is the only one who doesn't demand even a smidgen of me, but gives everything," Grass declares. To which his children reply, "That was the pasha speaking again." The novelist can't help knowing that there is something unjust, even monstrous, about the total power that his art gives him over his family's stories. On the very last page of The Box, Grass imagines them seceding from his version of reality, reclaiming their lives from his imagination: "All grown up now, the children assume stern expressions. They point their fingers at him. … Now the children have reclaimed their real names. Now the father is shrinking, wants to vanish into thin air."

But at the same time, Grass continues to believe—as, of course, he must—that a novelist's imagination gives him access to a truth beyond accuracy: "Had [Marie] and her box not existed, the father would know less about his children," he concludes. He is even willing to pay the price for this uncanny insight, to suffer the deserved punishment that the box reveals in its most comically disturbing images: "In eight little photos the sons and daughters came together in a horde and slew their father—presumably at his wish—with their flint axes and split him open … and roasted the chunks slowly over glowing embers until they were well cooked through and crisp, whereupon the last of the photos showed all of them looking well fed and contented."

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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