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Monday, 22 March 2010

Review: Crabwalk, Gunther Grass (2003)

Coming to terms with who you are often means explaining how you got there. For the characters in this novel, living in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, explanations will always hit upon things that cannot easily be revealed.

It's no surprise, then, that the book deals with a single family. The mother was an enthusiastic supporter of the Third Reich until the Russians overran her east German town. She would end up working in a furniture factory, becoming an enthusiastic barracker for the Soviet Union.

She's an interesting character, full of whimsy and mischief. She seems to revel in her lack of education and her low-brow interests, chief among which are men. And she doesn't like her son, the protagonist, very much.

He's a west German and a journalist. By this stage he's worked for many years and comes across as tired and world-weary. He's possibly Grass's least-interesting character. To underscore the banality of the 'middle age' trope, he's divorced from his wife, who lives even further west, with their son.

The boy emerges slowly in the narrative, which begins as a rumination on the fate of a ship that was built and employed by the Nazis as a pleasure vessel for the Romanticised and virtuous workers of the ascendant state.

The journalist-father has a special stake in the vessel because he was born on the same day it was sunk, by a Russian U-boat, in the closing days of WWII. His mother escaped from the boat at the last moment, giving birth at sea.

So the boat - which is depicted on the book's cover - has a special claim on our attention. This element of the narrative becomes supremely dominant as we learn about the way it was named. It was named after a functionary of the state who was assassinated, in Switzerland prior to the outbreak of hostilities, by an impoverished, Jewish medical student.

The Romantic possibilities of the vessel appeal to a young man who operates an internet site dedicated to chronicling and discussing the boat and the attendant narratives of pride and identity. The logic of the book demands, however, that the young man in question be the journalist's son. And he's being encouraged in his pursuit by the mother, lurking like a ravening, sportsfield-sideline parent in a crumblig factory in the downtrodden east.

Ineffectual, alienated dad has no way to influence the way the son's activities escalate from chatroom linguistics to something far less innocent.

The logic behind the drama is rooted in the country's shame. Concerns are not aired in public but are debated in a lively fashion behind closed doors, or are masqued by apparent indifference.

This sideways view is amplified by the way the narrator is forced, in retelling the tale, to backtrack constantly to fill in gaps in the historical narrative. The history is both his own and the country's.

Hence the title: 'Crabwalk'.

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