Friday, 5 July 2019

Book Review: Crabwalk by Günter Grass

As time passes, ideas may go out of fashion or even become kind of taboo, but once in the world they never disappear completely. These days, fascist ideas including national socialist ones see an alarming revival all around the world thanks to – for the moment still – democratic movements that prudently deny their roots. Such pretended nationalistic and patriotic, but actually racist ideologies make believe that they can put the unfathomable chaos of the modern world in a clear order and especially the young are easy prey for the populist demagogues who cunningly preach them taking advantage of the growing discontent in the population over living conditions and cultural diversity. In the novel Crabwalk by en-NOBEL-ed German writer Günter Grass a journalist from Berlin retraces his own and his mother’s lives to understand how their history encouraged his son to write a Nazi blog and to kill his pretended Jewish counterpart.

Günter Grass was born in Danzig-Langfuhr (today: Gdańsk Wrzeszcz), Free City of Danzig (today: Poland), in October 1927. As a fifteen-year-old he volunteered as air force auxiliary in the German Wehrmacht and after the National Labour Service he was drafted into an SS tank division. He was wounded, captured and sent to an American prisoners-of-war camp from where he couldn’t return to Danzig because it had become Polish. In Western Germany, he studied sculpture and graphics, but soon took up writing as well. After some poetry and a play, he published the novels combining to the Danzig Trilogy that brought him international fame, namely The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel: 1959), Cat and Mouse (Katz und Maus: 1961), and Dog Years (Hundejahre: 1963). Others of his notable novels are The Flounder (Der Butt: 1977), The Call of the Toad (Unkenrufe: 1992) and My Century (Mein Jahrhundert: 1999). Because his “frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history” Günter Grass was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel Crabwalk (Im Krebsgang: 2002) followed along with autobiographical Peeling the Onion (Beim Häuten der Zwiebel: 2006) and The Box (Die Box: 2008). Günter Grass died in Lübeck, Germany, in April 2015.

Paul Pokriefke is a mediocre journalist in his fifties, when he begins his written Crabwalk through past and present events connected to the Nazi “martyr” Wilhelm Gustloff who was shot by a Jewish student in Switzerland in 1936 and the ship named after him that was torpedoed on 30 January 1945. Along with thousands of German refugees trying to escape from Danzig before the Red Army invaded the city his grandparents and pregnant teenage mother were onboard the quickly sinking ship, but of the family only his mother survived. On the rescue boat she gave birth to Paul that same night as she never gets tired of recounting on every suitable or unsuitable occasion. Only when he left Communist Eastern Germany before the Berlin Wall was built, he could forget these embarrassing ghosts of the past that his mother likes so much to keep alive and that she wants him to eternalise in writing one day. In West Berlin, however, he soon turned into a lazy student of German Philology and Journalism ready to content himself – much to his mother’s dismay – a far from brilliant career after graduation. Around 1980 he got married and before long his wife, too, soon found his lack of ambition disappointing and divorced him moving to Mölln in Western Germany with their mutual son Konny. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Konny was eager to meet his so far unknown paternal grandmother and in no time he was spellbound by her stories about the Wilhelm Gustloff. Later Paul Pokriefke stumbled over a blog about Wilhelm Gustloff and his naval namesake, but it took a while before it dawned on him that Konny might be its author. Nonetheless, as usual he refrained from taking action as always and allowed misfortune to take its course…

Although a great part of Crabwalk deals with the true story of the Nazi promoter Wilhelm Gustloff and the ship that carried his name, the novel is above all the portrait of three generations of fictional Germans whose lives are marked by World War II in one way or another. To this purpose, the author skilfully interwove historical facts with their invented biographies from the first-person perspective of the middle-aged protagonist who happens to be a journalist. It appears very plausible to me that someone like him would go about explaining to the world as well as to himself in just this way how his mother’s always passionate praise of the ill-fated ship and talk about the spectacular circumstances of his birth could arouse his only son’s sympathies for Nazi ideas and how his own detachment favoured the development. Overall, analysis and reasoning seem very authentic, and yet, I can’t help feeling that reality must be more complex than that. Splendidly varied and well-constructed the plot serves the needs of the story perfectly and it also allows the characters to truly come to life in an unpretentious language that is still rich in powerful images and a delight to read.

Until reading Crabwalk by Günter Grass I always shied away from the writings of this Nobel laureate because all that I heard about them over the years led me to believe that they wouldn’t really be my cup of tea. I’m glad that my pledge to Read the Nobels (»»» read my sign-up post for the challenge including a list of my relevant book reviews so far) made me plunge into one of his novels after all. However, I preferred to pick one of his late ones instead of the more famous volumes of the Danzig Trilogy and it was a good choice. At any rate, I really enjoyed this one and the topic, too, was perfectly in my line. I liked it even better for knowing that the author drew from his own experience of life in Danzig during the war. In a nutshell, I warmly recommend the book.


  1. Hi Edith,
    I feel we know each other well since you are a great contributor on the Nobel prize page.

    Günter Grass is one of my favourite authors, probably because he is so "difficult". I've visited his house in Lübeck where you can see a lot about his life.

    Anyway, Crabwalk is a great book and I'm glad you got to read and like it.

    "See" you again soon,

    1. Yes, indeed, we seem to be the only ones left contributing to the Nobel Prize page lol.

      Until reading Crabwalk I always shied from reading Günter Grass. Probably, the film version of The Tin Drum left too much of an unpleasant impression on me, who knows?

      By the way, my next review of a book from the pen of an en-NOBEL-ed writer is already in the pipeline... going on this evening her on Edith's Miscellany.

      Hope to read you again soon,

    2. That's lovely. I moved about a month ago, my husband retired due to health reasons, so we have a lot of other things on my mind. But the Nobel Prize winners and their literature are always in my thoughts.

      Looking forward to reading a book by the new recipients. While I know of Peter Handke and his works, I've never read any of them. And Olga Tokarczuk hasn't been on my list, so far, either. But I'm sure they are both great authors.

    3. Actually, my review of a book by my compatriot Peter Handke should have gone online in March, but I'm dreadfully behind schedule with my writings this year... I'm going to fill the blanks by and by.

      Looking forward to reading more of your reviews, when you'll have the time. All the best, Marianne!


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