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Günter Grass: Hundejahre (Dog Years)

This is the third work in Grass’ Danzig trilogy and probably the most difficult to read. After Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), which, despite its length and often unpleasant subject matter, was a joy to read, this novel is hard work. This is not to say that it isn’t a very fine novel. It certainly is.

The novel is divided into three parts, each one with a different narrator. We start with Eddi Amsel and Walter Matern, two very different boys. Amsel is the weak intellectual, possibly Jewish. He is bullied at school by the tough boys, including Matern. His outlet is in making scarecrows. These are not just ordinary scarecrows but are based on historical and mythical characters and are soon recognised as having artistic merit. Indeed, they are so effective that they frighten not only crows but also other animals and even people. Eddi will later start selling them. Meanwhile, Matern, the toughest of the tough guys suddenly turns from being the bully to defending Eddi from the others. Eddi continues his scarecrow making but the final one he makes is a giant bird. This is so effective that it frightens off everyone, allegedly kills Matern’s grandmother and has to be burned. Eddi has visions of what this burning will later mean in Germany’s history.

The boys go off to Danzig, to school. As they grow up, they move apart. Eddi makes sculptures, including sculptures of SA men, while Matern joins the SA. Matern and his SA friends beat up Eddi for his sculptures. Eddi survives, changes his identity and goes to work for Goebbels. At the same time he runs a ballet company and works on his sculptures. Using the midgets from Oskar Matzerath’s group from Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), he creates a ballet called The Scarecrows. The war ends and Matern is freed. He travels around trying to expiate his guilt by actively and viciously participating in the denazification process. However, Eddi, now called Brauxel and the author of the book we are reading (i.e. Grass/the artist) makes glasses which allow the wearer to see who the real Nazis were and Matern is unmasked.

This summary is very brief and omits key characters, including Jenny, the ballet dancer, the various dogs, descended from one another, with the last being Prinz, Hitler’s dog, and many others. The novel is complex but the theme is clear. The visionary artist – Grass, Amsel, Brauxel – is the one to shine the spotlight on Germany’s shameful past and he does it very well.

Publishing history

First published in English in 1965 by Harcourt, Brace & World/ecker and Warburg
First published 1963 by Luchterhand
Translated by Ralph Manheim