Once upon a time there was a world-famous German novelist, a man with eight children, five boys and three girls, from four different wives or mates; and soon after turning 80, the man decided to tell (part of) his life story, but indirectly. So he imagined all his children, now grown up, coming together in various configurations, at various times and at various dinner tables, to tape-record their recollections. The writer, Günter Grass, was/is a bearish-but-affable man with a walrus moustache and a penchant for singing too loud and out of tune, a zestful carnivore and cooker of meats, a Luddite who never learned to drive and typed all his books on a little Olivetti. More problematic, he was a distracted absentee parent, who spent most of his time alone, writing. So, perhaps by way of making amends, he invited his children to take their best shot at him and recount his life from their perspective, while he remained on the sidelines, mostly silent and invisible.
For whatever reason, those children, now parents themselves, seem to have practically no hard feelings toward the old man; and their reminiscing sessions, full of disputes, jokes and unfinished sentences, turn out to be quite mellow and harmonious (we often can’t tell exactly who’s talking). Their collected confabulations make up The Box.
The title refers to a box camera, a cheap old Agfa (just which model no one knows), wielded by Mariechen, or Maria Rama (1911-88), a mysterious figure to whom Grass dedicates his book. “Little Marie” was an inseparable family companion, possibly Grass’s lover (though probably not), married to a professional photographer and an expert darkroom technician herself, but above all a magician whose photos capture not just present reality, but the worlds of her subjects’ past, future and heartfelt or whimsical desires. In other words, she is an image of Herr Günter Grass, who also happens to be a trained sculptor and graphic artist.
So, aided by the childless, laconic, bony Mariechen, who was far better informed than the others, the Grass children reconstruct their father—gently. As the narrator says early on, “ …the children must never find out what the father has suppressed. Not a word about guilt or other unwelcome deliveries.” And, on a still more confessional note, he later adds, “Now the inadequate father hopes the children will feel some compassion. For they cannot sweep aside his life, nor he theirs, pretending that none of it ever happened.”
Critics are likely to link this plea to the scandal that erupted in 2006, when just before the publication of his previous volume of memoirs, Peeling the Onion, Grass told a radio audience that in the last year of World War II, age 17-18, he had served in the Waffen SS (though without, he added, ever firing a shot). Coming from Germany’s most celebrated left-wing writer, this quickly engulfed Grass in a storm of condemnation; and it may be that he was just looking here for a little peace and quiet.
In any event, his brood, pseudonymously presented as Pat and Jorsch (twin boys), Lara, Taddel, Jasper, Paulchen, Lena and Nana, sound like an agreeable lot, high-spirited, generous, and rather like—surprise!—their old man. They are solid liberals (e.g., campaigning for Willy Brandt and once marching side by side with Rudi Dutschke), creative—an organic farmer, an audio technician, an actress, a midwife, a film director, etc.—and, more often than not, with failed marriages in their rear-view mirror. They voice no bitter resentment toward the Papa who seldom played or spent much time with them, but whose string of bestsellers enabled him to provide them with big, rambling houses and other needful things; and they have very little to say about their respective mothers.
Call it a golden glow of patriarchal egoism. There are all sorts of mostly cheerful anecdotes: about a dog named Joggi who regularly rode the West Berlin subway, about Daddy butchering eels and cooking lentil soup, about the usual childhood scrapes, from flunking courses in school to robbing a cigarette machine. But the recurrent subject is Grass’s books, especially The Tin Drum, Dog Years, The Flounder, Headbirths, The Rat and Crabwalk and the omnipresent symbol of his capacious lyrical visions, Mariechen’s box camera. It’s a lively show, down-to-earth, unpretentious—and ably translated by Krishna Watson—except that in the end it doesn’t reveal very much. Unless, of course, that’s the whole point: that the brutal egotism, the rage, the woundedness, the sense of abandonment, the pent-up aggression that readers might expect to find smoldering beneath the surface of this discombobulated family were not in fact there. Could be; but we have only Grass’s word for it; and he’s a notorious—if notoriously gifted—liar.