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PHANTOM SHIP
- Truth and its German refractions

Crabwalk By Günter Grass, Faber, £ 16.99

Paul Pokriefke, the journalist-narrator of this novel, was born on January 30, 1945, to an unwed mother on a lifeboat when Wilhelm Gustloff, the German cruise-ship-turned-refugee-carrier, sank in the icy Baltic Sea after being torpedoed by a Russian submarine. January 30 is also the date when the Nazis came to power in Germany (1933) and the birthday of Wilhelm Gustloff (1895), the Nazi political activist after whom the ship is named. Unlike his mother, Paul does not see preordination or celestial design in the mere coincidence of these dates. At the same time, the coincidence serves as a metaphor for the sheer burden of the past. It clings like contamination to the lives of individual Germans: “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising. For instance, this accursed thirtieth. How it clings to me, marks me.” Paul thus cannot escape the pressure to dig up the past, to settle his historical accounts by opening up the taboo subject of German suffering in World War II.

On one level, recovery of the past is recovery of the guilt that traps Germany in its Nazi past; on another level, as Grass’s chosen mode of investigative journalism suggests, such a pursuit of truth contains the only possibility of release from that trap. The alarming resurgence of neo-Nazi fanaticism among sections of the youth, abetted by the global playground of the internet, makes ascertaining the truth an urgent imperative. But memory itself is partisan: the nightmares of the Holocaust are paralleled by the devastating effect of the war on every aspect of German life. Gustloff, David Frankfurter (who murders him) and Marinesko (the Russian submarine commander) are all heroes — Nazi, Jewish and Russian respectively. What this blindness hides is that in sparing none — Jew, German, Russian — the war links, through the bond of suffering, vastly different peoples across the global theatre. The awareness of this may curb the impulse to settle scores and thus emancipate us from the trap of the past. The disembodied debate in cyberspace between Konrad (Paul’s son) and Wolfgang Stremplin illustrates the bifurcation of truth; at the same time, there is a strange camaraderie between the two.

Conversely, the suppression of memory tightens its tyrannical hold on the mind. Although some 9,000 Germans, mostly women and children, were drowned when Wilhelm Gustloff went down, the disaster has been relegated to silence. But Tulla, Paul’s mother, has never recovered from the trauma and Konrad, possibly under his grandmother’s influence, rakes up the tragedy on the internet. In other words, guilt-ridden attempts to keep German suffering out of public debate have not really cleansed that guilt; but turning into poisonous resentment, it has gone underground, erupting in racist violence ominously among the youth, that is, the future of Germany: “As the sinking of the ship was dredged up for a new generation, the long-submerged hate slogan, ‘Death to all Jews’, bubbled to the digital surface of contemporary reality: foaming hate, a maelstrom of hate. Good God! How much of this has been dammed up all this time, is growing day by day, building pressure for action.”

Appropriately enough, the novel begins and ends with a murder. David Frankfurter, a Jew who had fled to neutral Switzerland in order to escape persecution, murders in 1936 Wilhelm Gustloff, who instantly becomes a Nazi martyr. Sixty-one years later, Konrad (Paul’s son), an admirer of Gustloff, murders his internet adversary, Wolfgang Stremplin, who, unknown to the former, had passionately adopted a Jewish persona under the name of David. Tulla’s obsession with the ship and its sinking leads to the model that Konrad displays to Paul at the juvenile detention centre. A bewildered Paul wonders: “Is this never going to end' Must this story keep repeating itself' Can’t Mother get over it'” Even as Konrad breaks the model, hatred revives on the internet and the novel balances hope with despair: “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.”

These larger political and intellectual issues come alive in personal and family relationships that constitute the emotional core of the novel. Grass shows admirable narrative skill, whetting and satisfying in his reader that almost basic appetite for a cunningly told story. At the centre is the ship — cruising vessel, floating barracks, floating hospital and finally refugee carrier — on which the different strands of the story converge. Conceived as an egalitarian justification of National Socialist ideology, it was immensely popular with workers enjoying cruising holidays on it. Tulla’s parents had been on one such cruise.

If Gustloff, Frankfurter and Marinesko are caught up in the web of history across continents and cultural traditions. Paul is similarly linked to the past and the future through his mother and son. Hence, in each of these domains, historical and biographical, Grass uses a technique reminiscent of a triptych whereby we can see simultaneously in each the updated movements of the three figures. This is what he means by crabwalk: “seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly.”

Paul discovers that rival accounts of Gustloff’s murder had become popular in 1936 itself. Although Frankfurter had acted on his own, the Nazis saw the murder as part of the so-called international Jewish conspiracy, while for the Jews it became “David’s struggle with Goliath”. What worries Paul is that these “diametrically opposed assessments have survived into the digitally networked present.” He gradually realizes that the problem of truth permeates his own life — his shifting political loyalties, his failure as son, husband and father and, above all, his many father stand-ins: “I never did have a proper father, just interchangeable phantoms.” Paul’s inability to communicate with his mother, his wife and his son is not unrelated to the listless, drifting and somewhat aimless life that he leads. If Konrad accuses him of lacking in any convictions, the charge may be extended to the decent, perplexed but helpless liberalism of the Stremplins, parents of Wolfgang: Mr Stremplin, Paul feels, “looked like the type who sees everything as relative, even hard and fast facts”. At the same time, their avowed and complete freedom from any desire for revenge suggests a possibility of release from the spiral of hate.

This short novel has a polyphonic quality to it. The political dimension is interwoven with the absorbing story of three generations of a family. The search for truth turns reflexive, exploring the very manner in which truth can be told. In this sense, the novel foregrounds the difficulty of “telling” the truth. This is not only because of the “diametrically opposed” versions of truth but also because Paul is also implicated as a human agent hanging in a void between phantom father and phantom child. Perhaps such an uncertainty makes the characters cling on to facts and precise memories, to apparently trivial details — about Gustloff’s room, the topography of Davos, the construction of the ship and even that of the model.

But Paul’s dilemma is also that of the writer and artist. Paul’s alter ego, the shadowy father figure of Grass himself, instructs him on how to tell the truth. As a worn-out and dried-up writer, Grass represents the generation that abandoned the topic of German suffering to the right wing. By splitting the narrative persona, he adroitly captures the divided response to the past that continues to haunt the German psyche.

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