Remembering Gunter Grass in Cuba

Dariela Aquique

Gunter Grass
Gunter Grass

HAVANA TIMES — It is as though Aries came along with its fire to take two literary greats from us. In the early morning of Monday, we heard of the passing of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and, in the afternoon, at the other end of the world, of the death of German novelist Gunter Grass.

The two were very different men who had certain things in common. From their own perspectives, both reflected deeply on the history of their countries. In fact, Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 because “his black fables portrayed the forgotten face of history.” That same year, he was granted the Principe de Asturias Literature Award.

He was born in Danzig in 1927. He worked as a farmhand and stone-cutter before enrolling in the Dusseldorf School of Fine Arts to take sculpting classes (which he would later continue in Berlin). Parallel to this, he developed his skills as a visual and graphic artist and a writer of poems and prose.

As of the end of the 1950s, he was to devote himself fully to prose and become renowned for The Tin Drum (1959), the story of Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf who wanders the street accompanied by a small drum, whose drum rolls evoke a humorous portrait of Germany’s petit bourgeoisie.

This novel, Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963) make up a trilogy, where the author’s native city becomes the stage for the development of dramatic situations full of symbolism, word plays and the satirical and grotesque portrayals that characterized nearly his entire oeuvre.

The Flounder (1977) is considered the most ambitious of his novels. It relies on myth and historical episodes to craft a parable about the human condition and the relationship between men and women. It is also a story about the culinary arts and a sharp criticism of feminism, masterfully developed in nine chapters.

His always controversial books include a volume of political essays and speeches (1978) and The Case Against German Unification (1990), where he criticized the German unification process, regarding it as too hasty and traumatic for the GDR.

In 2006, he published an autobiography titled Peeling the Onion, where he revealed his membership in the Nazi SS during his early youth. The news stirred up controversy around the world, particularly in Germany, where no few critics insisted the novelist renounce to his Nobel Prize. Grass had to publicly apologize for the “sins of his youth,” while his defenders pointed to his devoted anti-war activism and his condemnation of the horrors of war.

Grass was a dedicated social democrat critical of capitalism. In 2012, the Israeli government declared him persona non grata and demanded that his Nobel Prize for Literature be taken away from him, following the publication of the poem What Has to Be Said, which expresses concern over Israel’s atomic arsenal.

While people mourned the passing of Eduardo Galeano in Latin America, the Old Continent was also, coincidentally, mourning the death of Gunter Grass. Aries came along with its fire, leaving world literature orphaned.

One thought on “Remembering Gunter Grass in Cuba

  • Not only is THE TIN DRUM one of my favorite novels, but indirectly Grass was the catalyst for liberating me from one of the worst, most destructive and harrowing relationships I’ve ever had with the opposite sex! In the early 1980’s I was involved in an obsessive relationship. At the time lacking the confidence to make a break, I allowed myself to be manipulated. Finally, one night we went to see the (inferior) film version of the novel. Both when I read the book, and subsequently when I viewed the film, I completely identified with little Oskar; she, on the other hand, despised him, even calling him, in the words of another character in the film, “a little freak!” This was too much for me. The result was a shouting match in front of the theatre, from which I walked away from, and out of, the relationship. I will be eternally grateful to Gunter Grass for being the agent of my liberation! Unfortunately, I have not yet read many of his other novels, and can only hope to do so before the Grim Reaper arrives for me, too!

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