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Books

Six must-read works by Günter Grass

Günter Grass, one of Germany's most significant post-war authors, passed away on April 13. Outspoken and controversial, he impacted the way Germany dealt with its past. Here's what you should add to your reading list.

"The Tin Drum" (1959)

In this masterwork of magic realism - and the first in his Danzig Trilogy - Grass weaves both allegory and contemporary themes to create what is widely considered a 20th-century classic.

"The Tin Drum" is the "memoires" of the often surreal life and universe of Oskar Matzerath, the indomitable drummer gifted with a shriek that can shatter glass. Identifying himself as a "clairaudient infant," Oskar's growth is stunted into that of a three-year-old body. However, this doesn't hold him back from the fantastical pilgrimage which directs the narrative of this impressive novel.

Oskar's story already complicated by having what he sees as two fathers (one Polish and the other a German Nazi), Grass guides us through a world of vaudeville, humor, violence, and absurdity as we follow the triumphs and tribulations of Oskar the lover, dwarf entertainer, messianic gang leader, Nazi brute, jazz star and alleged murderer - and backed up by a outlandish supporting cast of characters.

Tracing Europe's entry into World War II and recovery from it, "The Tin Drum" is a sometimes confounding, but always dazzling novel whose significance has never decreased with age.

"Cat and Mouse" (1961)

The second work in Grass' Danzig Trilogy, "Cat and Mouse" is again set in his native Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) during World War II. The famous Oskar Matzerath only makes a fleeting appearance in "Cat and Mouse," which instead tells the story of a character known as The Great Mahike.

Typical of Grass' style, most of the story is set on an abandoned shipwreck - a Polish navy minesweeper - where a group of friends loiter and scavenge for anything worth selling. Grass employs the techniques of an unreliable memoir, frequently - and often frustratingly - shifting the narrator's perspective (both time and place) and leading readers through a sometimes perplexing narrative.

"Dog Years" (1963)

Grass further paints in dense detail the inhabitants and the features of the city of Danzig in the last book of his trilogy. Once again, legends and historical facts become indistinguishable through dark magical realism. The work is divided in three sections integrating different narrative perspectives, inspired by the experimental syntax of the likes of Martin Heidegger and James Joyce.

"Dog Years" starts in the early 1920s with the story of a friendship between two boys, Walter Matern and Eduard Amsel, a half-Jew who creates spectacular scarecrows. The book brutally depicts Nazism and goes beyond the war into the 1950s, where West Germany's new booming economy is terrifyingly filled with fraud and hypocrisy. When it was published in English in 1965, the critic of the New York Times wrote: "In places it is turgid. But it contains scenes more powerful than those by any other contemporary novelist."

"The Flounder" (1977)

Grass had a penchant for fairytale classics and "The Flounder" - his first novel not associated with World War II - is loosely based on the fairytale of "The Fisherman and His Wife."

During the 1970s, the author was intensely involved in domestic German politics and actively supported the Social Democratic Party and Chancellor Willy Brandt, who famously became the first German leader to kneel before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial. It was an era when Germany was dealing with its Nazi past, but also left-wing terrorism, a booming economy and women's rights.

"The Flounder" opens with a fisherman in the Stone Age who catches a talking fish. Both are immortal and the story traces their tale throughout the ages, focusing on the relationship between food, women and war. By bringing a variety of women into the story - composed in nine chapters as an ode to pregnancy - he hones in on numerous aspects of emancipation and the age-old war of the sexes.

"Crabwalk" (2002)

Before turning to his memoirs, Grass wrote one more short novel on Germany's struggle with its collective guilt which would become his biggest international bestseller since the Danzig Trilogy. The story is centered on the sinking of a German cruise ship, "Wilhelm Gustloff," which was carrying German refugees fleeing from the invading Russians in 1945.

"Crabwalk" was the first book in which Grass dealt with the touchy issue of German refugees from the eastern European regions of what is now Poland and Czech Republic. His previous works had mainly focus on German guilt rather than Germans in the victim role. "Wilhelm Gustloff" sank after being torpedoed by a Russian submarine, killing over 9,000 passengers.

Grass interweaves an anti-chronological, multilayered structure, inspired by the crab's way of "scuttling backward to move forward." Here, too, fact and fiction are meshed: Though the sinking of the ship is based on real events, the journalist who narrates the story and his family are fictional.

"Peeling the Onion" (2006)

Günter Grass holding a copy of his autobiography Peeling the Onion, Copyright: picture-alliance/SCHROEWIG

Grass caused a stir in Germany with his memoirs

In "Peeling the Onion," the Nobel Prize winning author works his way through the different layers of his memory and identity, digging deep into the past.

Grass covers in the autobiographical book the period of his life before he wrote "The Tin Drum" and uses the work to reveal his biggest secret: As a 17-year-old in Nazi Germany, he had briefly been a member of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party.

The revelation shocked the country. Grass had been vehemently anti-Fascist and one of the most influential voices in helping Germany work through its guilt and establish its post-war identity. Now Grass was also tainted by guilt and embodied a paradox that many Germans from his generation could personally identify with.

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