Review: Peeling the Onion – Gunter Grass

This immensely enjoyable book, Peeling the Onion, a memoir or biography of Gunter Grass, is a fascinating account of the history and background of this great author. As a record of a boy and young man growing up in 1930s Germany it is a fascinating historical record, particularly the sections on Grass’s war service in the Waffen SS, and his later internment as a prisoner of war.

We read the little picture here, the daily struggle for survival, the domestic arrangements for eating and sleeping, the thoughts of a late teenage boy co-erced into the military and dealing with the everyday pettiness and frustration of army life. I wondered at this account, how typical it seemed of a boy soldier, while also seeming to be strangely devoid of references to the propaganda and culture which surely permeated Nazi army life? Although Grass was a member of the Hitler Youth, and describes its boy scout-like aspects, somehow we do not read hear of the anti-Jewish indoctrination which must have featured so strongly? Maybe Grass feels that this is old-ground and does not need to be repeated, almost a courtesy to present-day Jews in not mentioning it?

The book provides a large amount of background to Grass’s fictional work. He frequently tells us how places he found himself in, and events that happened to him provided sources for his short stories and novels. From The Tin Drum, to Crabwalk, this book fills in the gaps and answers questions that arise in reading the novels.

This is a wonderfully readable book, rich with narrative pace, but also with meditative and reflective passages which give us insight into the mind of the author. I particularly liked the section on the prisoner of war camp, where to alleviate the tedium of camp life, the prisoners arranged educational classes for themselves. Grass, although seemingly continually and painfully hungry, joins a cookery class where the demonstrations are wholly imaginary but still hugely satisfying. Grass provides us with wonderfully descriptive word portraits of the preparation of great dishes, from the slaughter and butchery of a pig, through to the processing of its every part, including the manufacture of blood sausage, a favourite of Grass to this day.

After the war years we read of Grass’s work as a miner, and later, as an apprentice stone-mason. However, his great desire it to study art, and the post-war section of the book focuses on his overwhelming desire to be totally dedicated to art, whether sculpture, drawing, poetry or writing. He seemed to have a tremendous drive to fulfil this ambition, and everything seems to revolve around his third “lust” for creativity (the first and second lusts being food and women!).

We gain many insights into the author and his way of life. I enjoyed reading of the rich life of his imagination (so essential in a novelist), such as when he “invites to dinner” a range of historical characters and converses with them on themes old and new. So often we see clues as to why his books are as they are when we read these small interludes in the dramatic pace of the war years. I will not attempt to describe within the limitations of this review the rest of this substantial book. It succeeds

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