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By Grass, Gunter

Translated by Michael Henry Heim

New York: A Harvet Book, 1999
ISBN: 0-15-601141-7 276 pages

Bob Corbett
April 2016

The structure of this “novel” is simply fascinating. Each chapter focusses on some short description of a life event in a particular year in the 100 years of the 20th century, “his” century. Each year has a chapter, and since the work is only 276 pages, that’s an average of 2.76 pages for each of the 100 chapters. The year chapters are in numerical order beginning with 1900, and, generally, there is no real connection between one chapter and the next or closely following year chapters. Each chapter stands alone, giving the reader an insight to some event or way of living in that year which seemed so natural and obvious to the narrator of that chapter that one tends to believe life, like the chapter describes was, in some manner, a typical or common way to be or sort of event one might expect in that year.

I think this treatment of the year by year is quite contrary to the knowledge which most of us have of the years of the 20th century. When I talk with my kids about my childhood, I can tell them of events which are very important and quite memorable to me, and they have never heard of anything like it and are amused or shocked, delighted, feeling at times that they are very happy to have avoided such situations in their own lives, or in other cases, jealous how bits and pieces of life were in the recent past, and yet about which they had never heard of such events, habits, customs or realities.

Gunter Grass is brilliant in his presentation of each year’s “slice” of life. They are believable, informative, very often astonishing. At times they are horrifying; at other times delightful moments of our history which we can only wish were parts of our own contemporary world.

Since Gunter Grass’ primary focus seems to be life mainly as it affected German life and culture in which he grew up, sometimes I would feel such a very different reality within my U.S. culture of those same years. Perhaps one of the most startling of these years was his treatment of 1927. He points out that life was extremely bleak in Germany until about the year 1927, when the post-war German economy began to recover a bit. This isn’t surprising when one just thinks about it for a few minutes. Germany suffered deeply in the Great War from 1914 – 1919 and it took quite a number of years for the basic economy to recover and, most especially, to see the end of the astonishingly rampant inflation of the value of the German mark, when things that pre-war had cost a few marks were all of a sudden sold in the tens or hundreds of thousands of marks for things like a loaf of bread or a couple of apples.

On the other hand, in post WWI U.S. things were getting very close to entering into our major depression of the 20th century, while Germany was beginning to see the rising to the fore of the relatively new Nazi power.

The structure of this book – detailed small events that focus on single year – brings home to me a phenomenon that I’ve begun to notice more and more as I age. Each generation of people has SIGNIFICANTLY different life experiences, memories and influences. The way each of us views the world is certainly rooted significantly in the person each of us is. Yet at the same time, each of us comes with the experiences we’ve lived through, and many of those mark us in lifelong ways. I was born just before WWII. As I grew up I saw how things were in our everyday life here in the U.S., in my city. In my younger days we still had an ice box, not a refrigerator. Almost all grocery stores were very small and local and within easy WALKING distance of my home there were 5 or 6 grocery stores. The egg man delivered our eggs, the ice man our ice. We had radio and were addicted to it, but we had no television and didn’t even know the word.

We kids had freedoms that the modern child not only doesn’t have, but most of our parents could probably have been put into jail for negligence in child rearing were the modern rules in play.

And the examples go on and on. Each of us, I believe, is deeply marked by the period of time and place where we grew up.

What makes Gunter Grass’ book so utterly fascinating is that for each year he brings some aspect, often a very small issue, to the fore and makes it live and shows the import of that event or way to be on our everyday lives. His focus is definitely more on life in Germany in “his century” and while many of these “years” were quite similar to readers like me in the U.S., there were many of the “years” where I was quite startled at the difference of this or that aspect of everyday life in Germany in that particular year in contrast with what was happening in the U.S. I think any reader in any other place in the world would have the same experiences.

Many of the “years” he treats from 1900 to 1939 (the year I was born) featured aspects of life that I didn’t know at all in the sort of detailed fashion his treatment of the year revealed. Even when were are in the years in which we had been living, some of the details of life in Germany in WWII and the immediate aftermath were things I’d never really known, or at least never had any “felt” sense of those events.

Grass’ ability to make each and every year’s tale so vibrant, clear, believable and revealing and at the same time entertaining makes this book a delight to read and a marvelous challenge to my sense of history.

I think back to his 1946 entry in which the woman narrator of that year’s entry talks about being one of the 40,000 “ruble women of Berlin.” These women were hired by the government to help removed the rubble from the streets of Berlin which, of course, had been caused in 1945’s massive bombing of Berlin by the allied forces near the end of the war. The piece is such a powerful image of just how horrible war is, how devastating to the lives of those effected, and how profoundly “everyday” the horrors are. It is just a couple pages long, but it had an amazing emotional impact on me.

The entry for 1954 focuses on the Hungary vs Germany in the World cup soccer. And then the whole mood changes in 1955’s entry which is about the craze of building of bomb shelters in one’s own back yard. Soon the building and existence of the Berlin Wall dominates his late 1950s and early 1960s entries and they continually pop up until the 1989 entry when the Wall fell.

The late 1960s and early 1970s are filled with political left-wing protests, much similar to the U.S. Then, too, in the 1970s drugs become a major issue with many younger folks.

While he seems to emphasize the widening gap between the values and ways of life between the young and older people, I do wonder if that phenomenon ever much changes. It seems to me that a nearly universal theme of history is the clash between the values of one generation to that of the next, but, perhaps in the past the pace may have been slower; perhaps gaps were between two generations and then the next two, rather than in nearly each generation as it seems to happen today.

1978’s entry is about hippie dress and manners and that particular chapter seemed to me to be quite close to the world as I knew it and lived it in the U.S.

After the Chernobyl disaster much of Germany’s mushroom crop in the Rhineland was destroyed. Further modes of pollution were becoming a significant problem by 1988.

1991’s entry was a clever argument from a 1960’s leftist radical attacking the leftist radicals of 1991 who were against the Iran/Iraq war. The 60s radical was treating the modern radicals as “wimps.”

Soon things get more and more “modern” and we are treated to the 1995 Radical Berlin Love Parade

“… no born-again sixty-eighters, always against one thing or the other But never quite clear about what they’re for. . .”

The young man narrator of that entry says:

“The world’s beyond saving, but it can still party.”

This is certainly a very strange history of a century. 100 entries in only 276 pages. Nonetheless, the reader comes away with a powerful FELT sense of the movement and changes in life that occurred in the 20th century. The book is a marvelous and gripping read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett