How to age gracefully: Günter Grass offers a radical last work | Books | DW | 28.08.2015
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How to age gracefully: Günter Grass offers a radical last work

During his life, the author never avoided controversy. Once more, he boldly dealt with difficult topics in his final book: Aging and mortality. Four months after his death, it is now available in bookstores in German.

The title of Günter Grass' last book, "Vonne Endlichkait" (About Finitude), borrows from East Prussian dialect, from the region where Günter Grass was born. This final work is barely about politics and society: Grass did not focus on wars and social upheavals as he typically did during the last years of his life through his books, public statements and interviews.

This time, he wrote about the collapse of the body.

Radical view of the human body

This requires courage, especially considering the radical way he approaches the topic. Throughout the 176 pages of "Vonne Endlichkait," poems and short prose pieces alternate, accompanied by some 60 pencil drawings by Grass.

The book can be described as a work of art: The author of the "The Tin Drum" used more than words to literally create a beautiful book.

Book presentation Vonne Endlichkait by Günter Grass, Copyright: Swen Pförtner/dpa

Ute Grass, the author's widow, and publisher Gerhard Steidl presenting the new book

Most texts and poems deal with the mental and physical conditions of old age. It's about the process of aging, with the diseases, pills and weakening of the mind that go along with it. "Vonne Endlichkait" is filled with uncommon sensitivity, along with a healthy dose of irony and humor.

The harsh details of old age

In the poem "Selbstbild," he depicts himself in impressionist touches, ruminating on little spoonfuls of porridge, bothered by dentures, snot, drool, and shortness of breath.

A corresponding self-portrait on the following page shows him as an old man, mouth open with a single tooth left. Falling teeth appear throughout the volume, serving as a symbol of physical decay.

And it goes on throughout the whole book: Through poetry and prose, he fearlessly deals with sleeping disorders and decreasing libido, loss of taste and smell and incoherent babbling. Here Grass stays true to himself, spreading throughout his signature crude irony - colorful and even at times cheerful.

Grass shows that even if the deterioration of the body is unavoidable, that doesn't mean one has to let go. He rears up, discarding the physical discomforts to embrace life.

How to shop for a coffin

Buchvorstellung Vonne Endlichkait von Günter Grass

Ute Grass at the presentation of the book

The longest story in the book, "Worin und wo wir liegen werden" (What and where our final resting place will be), builds up a climax: The narrator and his wife visit a carpenter to order their own coffins.

Throughout their meeting, they not only discuss the length and the width of their casket, but also the cemetery they will be picking.

Here, the political Günter Grass reappears: He was first tempted by Berlin, but will look further, disappointed by the way the city obnoxiously claimed to be the capital of the country right after the fall of the Wall - an empty bubble, he writes.

Grass, the political figure

We recognize here the Günter Grass who infuriated many politicians recently with his speeches and writings. The author refers to current politics in four or five texts: He expresses dislike for Chancellor Angela Merkel's political style and criticizes unbridled capitalism; he dedicates a poem to the Greeks and another to Syria.

An attentive reading also uncovers Grass rumbling briefly about how the world reacted to his involvement with the Nazi Party in his youth, a fact kept secret until 2006 - it had "… long been ripe for launch." Yet these remain side notes in a book primarily focusing on aging.

Vivid pictures of mortality

Günter Grass, who was also a sculptor and visual artist, explored some of his favorite motifs in his drawings: Birds and mushrooms, wood and roots, leaves, feathers and stones, snails, fossils, bones, and skeletons - all affected by decay and weathering.

Nails keep showing up in the drawings, too. Perhaps he was thinking of those which would fasten his final resting place.

"Vonne Endlichkait" demonstrates how poetry has always powerfully managed to escape the most tightly sealed rooms, overcoming the physical limits of a declining and mortal body.

An English translation is planned for 2016.

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