by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2005

I’ve just finished Günter Grass’s “Crabwalk”: , which which I read partly because it dovetails with some other stuff I’ve been reading (such as Sebald’s “Natural History of Destruction”: ) and partly because I have to give a presentation to my German class about a recent book I’ve read. I figured that if I chose a German book there’s be plenty of on-line material to help me work out the relevant vocabulary.

There’s been “much blogospheric concern”: recently about the resurgence of the German far-right, and that’s very much Grass’s concern. One of the favourite themes of the neo-Nazis is Germans-as-victims and Grass’s underlying thought is that the embarassed silence of the German mainstream about the fate of the refugees from Germany’s lost eastern provinces has gifted the extremists a monopoly of that issue. The novel is centred around the sinking of the “Wilhelm Gustloff”: on 30 January 1945. The ship, a former pleasure cruiser, was carrying as many as 10,000 people when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. Nearly everyone on board perished and it therefore ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters even. The narrator protagonist Paul Pokriefke is a cynical journalist whose mother, a survivor, gave birth to him on one of the lifeboats. His estranged son, Konrad, is a neo-Nazi obsessive who runs a website devoted both to the ship and to the assasinated Nazi functionary after whom it was named. Paul tells us of the sinking itself, of his difficult relationship with mother (a DDR loyalist who cried when Stalin died) and son, and of the assassination of “Gustloff”: himself in Zurich in 1936 by a Jew, “David Frankfurter”: .

One thing that Grass gets absolutely right is the atmosphere of internet chatrooms. The son, Konrad, is forever engaged in hostile-but-matey banter with a “Jewish” interlocutor “David”. Not only are their identities not quite what they seem but he gets the adolescent faux-enemy-I-hang-out-with thing. I won’t say more about this, because I don’t want to spoil the denoument for anyone.

I’m not sure that Grass ends up telling us all that much about the neo-Nazi phenomenon. What he does get across though is a sense that the commitment of all of his protagonists to anything like a liberal democracy is fragile and contingent. Certainly a book worth reading for both its literary and historical interest, though the translation is occasionally clunky.



James Russell 02.27.05 at 1:04 pm

I don’t want to spoil the denoument for anyone

Let me guess… “David” turns out to be a 40-something housewife from Nebraska named Barbara?


Kevin Donoghue 02.27.05 at 1:47 pm

“…the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on 30 January 1935.”


[Sorry: typo fixed. CB]


John Emerson 02.27.05 at 6:20 pm

You definitely can find anything on the nationalist internet, and in (bad) English too. For example, a long anti-Semitic rant which hinged on a failure to distinguish the Khazars and the Khazaks (1000 yeas and 2000 miles apart). Or a nationalist Korean telling a nationalist Russian about the danger of “Chineses” taking over Russia. Or a Russian and a Lithuanian arguing about whether the Lithuanians interbred with the Mongols. The veneer of civilization is pretty thin.


Davis X. Machina 02.28.05 at 3:05 am

Did Ralph Mannheim do the translation? He is — or was — Grass’ usual translator, and I liked his work on Der Butt.


Chris Bertram 02.28.05 at 7:40 am

No, it was Krishna Winston.


IanJ 03.01.05 at 1:18 pm

The press here in Germany has left me with the impression that the original may have been somewhat clunky too. Perhaps Winston was just being faithful to the text.

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