Book Review – Crabwalk by Gunter Grass

In his opus German History 1770 – 1866 historian James Sheehan defined German history though its: “diversity and discontinuity, richness and fragmentation, fecundity and fluidity.” While feeling generous Gunter Grass referred to it more simply as a “crabwalk”; meaning “scuttling backward to move forward.” While in his protagonist’s point-of-view he elucidated it as such:

History, or to be more precise, that history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising. (Page 122)

I attended a class in German history while an undergraduate. This might explain why the professor didn’t add Crabwalk to the required reading list.

Grass’ historical novel presented a take on the recent German past from the Second World War through the book’s publication date. (2002) He used his protagonist, Paul Pokriefke, to express it.

At times Crabwalk read like a history book. Grass did his research. The central story spark ignited from the sinking of a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, on January 30, 1945. The plummeting boat served as the setting of Pokriefke’s birth. The author populated the book with dates, events and personalities from the time periods it covered. I found it very interesting that Gras included a sort of mini-biography of the Soviet submarine commander who launched the torpedoes into the ship.

The book’s time frame alternated between past and present. Whenever I read books structured this way, I get lost. As I perused this one, I didn’t encounter that issue. The author organized the chapters in such a way that I could follow the events. Not many writers can achieve this so kudos to Mr. Grass.

I applaud the author for weaving in his historical facts without detracting from the overall narrative. All the actual information Gras provided helped to propel the story forward. He didn’t overwhelm me with extraneous data just because he uncovered it during his research. Many authors could learn from this.

Crabwalk came out five years after the movie Titanic. The book referenced it during a passage on the making of a film based on the sinking of the Gustloff. I enjoyed the sardonic way the author tied-in the real life flick.

Just as in all the Titanic films, a love story had to be brought in as filler, taking on heroic dimensions at the end, as if the sinking of an overcrowded ship weren’t exciting, the thousands of deaths not tragic enough. (Page 119)

Obviously, the protagonist didn’t have the most positive world view. This carried into his summation of his own life.

Don’t make me laugh! I know my limitations. I’m a run-of-the-mill journalist, who can do a decent job for short stretches. I used to have big plans—a book I never got around to writing was supposed to be called “Between Springer and Dutschke”—but not for the most part my brains stayed on the drawing board. Then Gabi stopped taking the Pill without telling me, was soon pregnant, undeniably by me, and dragged me off to City Hall to get married. Once the squalling baby was there and the future educator had gone back to her studies, it was clear to me: From now on, don’t expect much. The best you can do is hold up your end as a house husband, changing diapers and vacuuming. No more delusions of grandeur! What can you say about a guy who lets himself be saddled with a baby when he’s thirty-five and losing his hair? Love? Forget about that till your past seventy, and by then the parts will have stopped working anyway. (Page 41)

Because of his history, I could understand the protagonist’s gloom. Later in the story he expressed his thoughts on the sinking of Gustloff:

We do know that the majority of those who died were women and children; men were rescued in embarrassing large numbers, among them all four captains of the ship. (Page 163)

I’ll refrain from giving away spoilers. I can inform readers that Grass included a disturbing link between past and present. His use of the protagonist’s son as the vehicle troubled me. By doing so, the author brilliantly elucidated his point. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if he hadn’t.

Despite the protagonist’s pessimism, I enjoyed reading Crabwalk. Grass’ masterful way of crafting such a complex tale into just 234 pages amazed me. While he presented a disturbing analysis of recent German history, ignoring it after reading the book would be more alarming.

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