838: Peeling the Onion by Gunter Grass

by Gerard

838.91409: Grass, Günter. Peeling the Onion. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harcourt, 2007. 425 pp. ISBN 978-0-15-101477-4.

Dewey construction:

  • 800: Literature
  • 830: German literature
  • 838: German miscellaneous writing (essays, fragments, etc.)
  • 838.914: German miscellaneous writing after 1945
  • +09: Historical treatment

Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion is all at once haunting, sad, and illuminating. Born in Gdansk in 1927, he entered his majority right in the middle of World War II. He was a stupid, petulant, confused boy who joined the Hitler Youth and became a soldier for the Waffen SS. Clearly he avoided becoming a physical casualty, but he talks about his experiences before, during, and after the war. Afterwards we see him working as a miner, a black market salesman, and an artist and get a memoir that leads up to the writing of The Tin Drum.

His writing is hesitant and questioning, as if every word claws at him, and he never fully trusts his memories of the past. What we get is a dance between his present and past selves, and each one informs the other. I’ve never read anything by Grass, but I am more intrigued than ever. Writers very rarely give definitive sources for their place, actions, and characters, but Grass gives away all his secrets in this book. I wish more writers did that; it makes their works that much richer.

Now, a great many people were shocked to hear Grass finally admit that he voluntarily enlisted in the SS. If reading has taught me anything it’s that human beings exist on a spectrum and not just in the two points on the ends. I’ve encountered good men who’ve bad things and bad men who’ve done incredible, good, and brave deeds. While Grass’s memories about the past may be jumbled or faded, his emotions are not. They are raw as the onion he imagines his mind is; each layer peeled opens new scenes and new scars for the word to see.