Selected By Cyril Wong
Adam Mars-Jones does not waste time: “The Wilhelm Gustloff is not the only thing that sinks in Günter Grass's new novel, Crabwalk.”
We have seen Mars-Jones in an earlier review here on Acid Tongue in which his literary claws were out and eager to slash. Unafraid to put down literary giants – as he did with Saul Bellow (Cf Jan 2002 issue of QLRS) – Mars-Jones engages in no less critical fashion with Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass’s latest work:
Günter Grass's rather bleak new novel centres on the sinking in 1945 of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship crowded with refugees. The narrator, Paul Pokriefke, is marked by the event, since his mother was on board, eight months pregnant with him. The shock of the torpedoes' impact sent her into labour. The title Crabwalk refers to the rather sidelong construction of the book, but this isn't the first time Grass has used an unglamorous creature (eel, flounder, snail, rat) emblematically.
The sarcasm is surfacing already. But do read on:
Grass puts himself in the story as a sort of éminence grise, described with typical, crusty pathos as an old man 'who has worn himself out writing', and who has delegated this story to Paul, professionally a journalist and not much more than a hack, but at least someone for whom the story has personal meaning. Paul has no definite idea of who his father was - Mother was both steely and flighty - though one potential Dad sent him an allowance for a while. Sometimes, he suspects Grass of being a candidate.
So far he deals with the narrative events and indulges a bit in allusions of Nazicism, in relation to the sinking of the ship Gustloff in the novel. But let us focus on the bitchy bits:
Crabwalk takes its time to get going. Pokriefke's (and Grass's) decision to tell histories in parallel... leads to some laborious sentences that do little more than mark time. Chapter Three starts with: 'While the interior, from the lowest deck, the E deck, to the sundeck was being done, the funnel, the bridge, and the communications station were being added, and along the Baltic coast diving practice was taking place, in Chur 11 months of incarceration passed.' Two-thirds of this astoundingly clumsy sentence describe the fitting-out of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the next segment deals with the naval career of the Russian Marinesko, who would eventually sink it, and the final sixth refers to the imprisoned Frankfurter.
Even without all those passive verbs, this comes uncomfortably close to hack homework rather than dynamic narrative. Grass's fondness for personal shorthand ('the chain-smoker'; 'the deaf-mute with curly locks'; 'this man of the sorrowful countenance') sets up further obstacles for the reader.
Now for the best condemnation:
Elegance is not part of Grass's remit as a writer, as he shows clearly enough when he compares German history to a backed-up lavatory ('We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising').
But Mars-Jones relents, and suggests it may be a translation problem:
Still, he deserves a more expert translator than Krishna Winston, who comes up with any number of sentences which have left German without arriving at English. 'A much too long prelude'; 'the growing number, at first slowly, of wounded' - English grammar may be hospitable, but it can't entertain these constructions. Even simple sentences seem indefinably off ('What happened next went quickly'); these are things no one would ever actually say.
Mars-Jones attacks the central symbol in the novel, of course, and by attacking its core, the novel is left to sink in the reader’s expectations:
Why remember the Gustloff? After all, victorious armies aren't usually merciful and, though the ship was full of refugees, including hundreds, perhaps thousands of children, it was an armed vessel under naval command and had no claim on amnesty. Crabwalk is full of complaints that this terrible disaster (losses hard to estimate, but perhaps approaching 10,000) has none of the celebrity it deserves. It's as if 'the Wilhelm Gustloff had never existed, as if there were no room for another maritime disaster, as if only the victims of the Titanic could be remembered, not those of the Gustloff'.
And boy can he link it to something hip and contemporary:
But the Titanic was always remembered as a symbol, not as a tragedy that cost particular lives, even before James Cameron's film brought it about that the single casualty most mourned, Leonardo DiCaprio's plucky Irish Romeo, never actually existed. An iceberg is an ambassador of Fate: torpedoes, however destructive, are part of the ordinary currency of war.
This remaining passage is the bitch doing a peekaboo amidst the foliage of generally dispassionate criticism (he does indulge himself a bit here):
The human horror doesn't get lost along the way. Grass comes up with at least one harrowing image whose cinematic qualities would excite James Cameron: an officer fetches his wife from her cabin and manages to prepare a motorboat, used for excursions in the Strength Through Joy days, for launching. As the launch is lowered from the boat deck, the women and children trapped in the enclosed promenade deck see it through the plateglass panels. The two groups could have waved to each other. The launch has seats to spare...
Until next time.
Mars or Grass? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003