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Günter Grass: Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (From the Diary of a Snail)

So let’s get this straight from the beginning. This isn’t a novel by any stretch of the imagination. There is a story in there, which may or may not be fictitious – Grass says that it is not, his son says that it is – but it is story told by a novelist. What is interesting about this work, is that it encapsulates many of Grass’ themes as well as much of his novelistic style.

The book is nominally about the 1969 German elections, which brought Willi Brandt to power as Chancellor. Grass campaigned for the Social Democrat Party (SPD – Brandt’s party), travelling all over the country speaking on behalf of the SPD. This book can be seen as a campaign diary but it is much more than that. Grass talks to his four children about what is going on. As he himself says, he is liable to go off on tangents, which he frequently does, ruminating on all sorts of topics. Many of these topics are relevant to the campaign – the differences between the old and the young as regards politics, social justice, foreign aid as well as current German issues such as the revaluation of the Mark. This could be boring but Grass is such a masterful storyteller that it never is. The image of the snail is important, both in itself but also how it ties into the story. For Grass, progress should be like a snail, slow and careful, and he compares his view with those of the young who want more rapid change.

Of course, one of Grass’ key theme is German guilt for the War and, while it does come up during his election travels, it is the key theme of the story. The story concerns Hermann Ott, known to all as Dr. Doubt or simply Doubt. He had been destined to be a hydraulics engineer but did not want to be, so he studied biology and philosophy. At this time – 1930s in Danzig – there were few opportunities so, though not Jewish, he took a job in a Jewish transit camp. When a teacher was later fired for being Jewish in the town, he took his job and taught the Jews. Gradually, he came to have sympathy for their plight, both the local ones and those in transit, and helped many of them. Grass, recounting this story to his children, gives us a portrait of this man over the course of the novel. He helps the Jews in difficulties. He helps them escape. In short, unlike most of his fellow Germans, he treats them as equals and he treats them well.

Apart from the link of this theme of German guilt, the other link with Grass’ electioneering is the snail. Ott is interested, as a biologist, in slugs and snails and gets several of the Jews interested in them as well. Indeed, if you wish to learn about slugs and snails, this is a good book to start with. Of course, Grass is preserving the metaphor, slow and ponderous progress, and it works well. Ott manages to help most (but not all) the Jews to escape and he and, later Grass, follow up on what happened to them. He himself is, of course, in danger and manages to escape (by bicycle) and spends the war in a cellar on a farm in the Kashubian countryside. With the aid of a snail, he manages to cure the farmer’s daughter, who has been traumatised by the death of her husband and son (the latter in front of her) and, after the War, marries her. It is a fine tale and makes a valid point both about the treatment of the Jews by most Germans but by the kindness of others. Grass writes this work so well that it reads like a novel and, after Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), it remains for me his best work.

Publishing history

First published 1972 by Luchterhand
First English translation 1974 by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich