Günter Grass: Ein weites Feld (Too Far Afield)
This book came in for a lot of criticism, both from German and English-speaking readers. For the Germans, Grass’ position that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not a good thing, was anathema. A key theme of this book and of his other works is that German imperialism and militarism is a bad thing and, in his view, the fall of the Berlin Wall was likely to lead to the revival of this trend. For non-Germans, the book is rich in references to German literature and history which you do not really need to know about to understand the book but it certainly helps. Indeed, if you know little about, for example, Paul Heyse (known, if at all, to non-Germans, as the first German to win the Nobel Prize for Literature), Theodor Fontane, author of Frau Jenny Treibel and Effi Briest, both of which figure in this book or, indeed, Otto von Bismarck, you may well miss some of what is going on. Finally, for all readers, if you are one of those who prefer a linear, clearly outlined plot, this book may not be for you, as Grass rambles, jumping back and forth in time, having his characters repeating, at length, their political messages, setting off on plot tangents, which seem to get lost or only reappear 500 pages later, when you have long since lost track of them. For what it’s worth, I very much enjoyed the book but then I like long, rambling novels that go all over the place and that discuss ideas.
There is a unifying thread and it is the story of Theo Wuttke, born on December 30 1919, and his day-and-night shadow, Ludwig Hoftaller. They are the traditional literary pair – think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Vladimir and Estragon or even Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They are witty, they comment on the plot and on life and they don’t seem to be quite of their time. Theo Wuttke is known as Fonty, which Germans will have seen is a reference to Theodor Fontane, whom he adores. Indeed, Fontane is his doppelganger. Fontane was born exactly 100 years before Fonty and, called only The Immortal in this book, appears as the predecessor of Fonty, to comment on historical events prior to Fonty’s appearance. Fonty was a journalist during World War II (though not, as he tells, us a frontline one). After the War he ended up in East Germany, where he worked for various cultural organizations. He now, in his seventies, is working for Treuhand, the body responsible for privatizing East German concerns. Hoftaller’s earlier doppelganger was Tallhover. Tallhover was a spy who kept tabs on Fontane, while Hoftaller, who has been a spy for various organisations, is now assigned to watching Fonty.
Plot? Well, there are bits of plot all over the place but they are mainly an excuse for Grass to hang his political concerns on. These concerns are mainly the ones we know about – fear of a rise in German militarism and imperialism, anti-Semitism and the End of History, as symbolised by the destruction (which Fonty fights) of the lift in the old East German Ministry building where he works. For Grass, Germany’s past risks interfering with its present and that is what he fears. Yet, at the same time, he applauds Fontane and other dead German writers and the book, as well as being a homage to German literature, is also a homage to the city of Berlin, in the way that Bloom’s wanderings are a homage to Dublin. Not an easy book but one I found very rewarding.
First published 1995 by Steidl
First English translation 2000 by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich