THE BOX: TALES FROM THE DARKROOM by Gunter Grass

Book Quote:

“But that is not enough, or too much, for all of you. Yes, children, I know: being a father is only an assertion, one that constantly has to be corroborated. This is why, to make you believe me, I must lie.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (NOV 9, 2010)

Nobel laureate Günter Grass has made a career out of fictionalizing the past in order to be better believed. His first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), used an autistic dwarf named Oskar as a magic-realist alter-ego commentator on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Some two dozen books later, Crabwalk (2002), his most recent novel, reviews the same period together with the Soviet occupation of East Germany, under the guise of a fictionalized family biography. In this, a writer (though not Grass himself) uses the web to research the sinking of a ship in which his mother was one of the few survivors, while at the same time observing the internet activities of his neo-Nazi son. Shortly after that, in Peeling the Onion (2006), Grass turned to true autobiography, attempting to explain his own activities as a member of the Hitler Youth and soldier in the Waffen SS in the last year of the War, a fact that he had kept hidden for sixty years.

Hidden but not forgotten; if Grass lied about his life in factually objective terms, his entire fictional oeuvre has been an attempt to find metaphors for his own responsibility and that of his countrymen towards their common past. In his latest work, The Box, he combines autobiography with magic realism in an oblique view of his entire life as a writer, though without strong political or moral overtones or, frankly, much interest.

Although the book is subtitled “Tales from the Darkroom” and looks a little like a set of nine short stories, it is in fact a continuous series of vignettes. At different times, in different cities, various groups of Grass’s eight children (by several different mothers) meet to reminisce about different phases of their childhood. Each child is the principal narrator for a different chapter, though there are no quotation marks, and various other voices weave in without clear attribution. The focus of their memories are the pictures taken by Marie (Mariechen), a family friend and possibly their father’s lover, on a prewar Agfa box camera. Damaged in an air raid, it has the capacity to record things not as they are, but in terms of the stories they contain. A snapshot taken near Checkpoint Charlie shows the escape of the woman who would become the author’s second wife. A series of pictures of the family dog Joggi imagine him riding the subway on his own all across the city. Landscapes taken near the Danish border on the Baltic coast reveal scenes from the Thirty Years War. It is a very clever analogy for the way in which an author collects motifs from all around him and tells stories about them. When the stories are shaped and focused, the result can be great fiction, but when we get only the fragments without the shape, the result is merely self-indulgent.

I am writing this two days after hosting my daughter’s wedding. The house has been full of family members telling stories about the past. It is an enthralling celebration for those who share our common links, but for someone visiting for the first time it can be overwhelming and even alienating. At least that’s what I felt reading this book. A number of other Nobelists, curiously, seem to have turned to fictional autobiography in their late works; both Kenzaburo Oe and J. M. Coetzee have been mining their lives in this way for some years. But though autobiographical, Oe’s The Changeling also addresses the whole postwar history of Japan. Coetzee’s latest book, Summertime, not only says something equally important about South Africa, but creates a gallery of characters that are as rich as any in his novels. The family members in The Box, however, are little more than disembodied voices, reflecting a father figure — storyteller, creator, puppet-master, or director — who remains in the shadows nonetheless, writing to exorcise his own demons. Here are the final words of the book; if only Grass could have put his point so eloquently in the 200 pages that precede them!

“A quick exchange of glances. Partial sentences chewed and swallowed: assertions of love, but also reproaches, stored up over the years. Now the lives portrayed in snapshots are called into question. Now the children have reclaimed their real names. Now the father is shrinking, wants to vanish into thin air. Now the suspicion is voiced in whispers: he, and he alone, was Mariechen’s heir, and has the box stashed away somewhere, like other things: for later, because something is still ticking inside him that has to be worked through, as long as he is still here.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (November 10, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Günter Grass
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Bibliography:

*Referred to as the Danzig Trilogy

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November 9, 2010 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Nobel Prize for Literature, Short Stories, Unique Narrative, World Lit, y Award Winning Author