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."


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."

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 4:33 PM Walmart Is Killing the Rest of Corporate America in Solar Power Adoption
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.