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.

The Box by Gunter Grass.

"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.

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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.

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."

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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