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On Writing and Politics : by Gunter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim : (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $13.95; 151 pp.)

July 21, 1985|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

Fiction, like freedom, is supposed to be in trouble. Most people, according to other people, want information, want logical methods for dealing with reality rather than literary means of escape. That's why, say these same other people, Lee Iacocca's auto biography outsells John Irving's novel by so many orders of magnitude.

Many artists mourn the hunger for data but live with a corollary notion, accepting its limitation on their work: that imagination suffers when politics or urgency intrudes. The novelist or playwright who pursues politics in the process of creation is accused of writing tracts or polemics or tainted works of ulterior persuasion.

Then there is Gunter Grass, the author of "The Tin Drum" and "The Flounder," a novelist who knows that the writer is inseparable from specific time, immediate place. He neither contrives escape nor offers it. "A writer," he says in this collection of essays and speeches, "must face up to the test of reality, including political reality; and that can't be done if he keeps his distance."

He introduces himself to tell us how urgent was his time and how perilous his place: "Born in Danzig on the Baltic Sea, I was 6 in 1933, 12 in 1939. In May, 1945, I was 17, too young to participate in the crimes of National Socialism, but old enough to have been shaped by their consequences. Innocent through no fault of my own, perhaps only accidentally without guilt, I have a low opinion of belated antifacism."

For this novelist, freedom and fiction share a trouble with authority rather than an audience, an ongoing battle against the bureaucracies refusing "to recognize any reality besides their own," against a world of censors convinced that fiction is itself a subversive threat to present order and that any unconforming idea is by nature dangerous. So Grass' plays and poems and fictions have been articulations of the writer's imperative to rail against authority imposed or regime institutionalized.

The villains of his pieces may be on the right or left, whether the Soviets suppressing Solidarity in Poland or the United States deciding who the "freedom fighters" are in Nicaragua. A 1982 speech in Frankfurt implores Pope John Paul II, "the Polish Pope," to realize that Sandinism and Solidarity spring from similar aspirations. The enemy is ideology and, therefore, the Communists generally fare worse than the West in his reviews of recent superpower behavior, but Grass distrusts any system claiming to have answers for everyone; the sin is certainty.

He is, by extension, opposed to revolution: "I detest the sacrifices that always have to be made in its name. I detest its superhuman goals, its absolute demands, its inhuman intolerance; I fear the mechanism of revolution, which had to invent permanent counterrevolution as an antidote to its efforts." Fiction and freedom, he would have us understand, are dangers to both those in power and those who would seize it. He even has an assignment for fellow writers, "to stop thinking about 'Literature and Revolution' and give some consideration to the unspectacular, less inflammatory theme: 'Literature and the Republic.' "

The most graceful parts of the book are the previously published essays, brightly translated by Ralph Manheim. The most hortatory parts of the book are the speeches, covering 15 years of Grass appearances on platforms in several nations. Speakers have to implore or audiences fall asleep, but on the page, such introductory proclamations as "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'll come right out with it . . . " lose passion and acquire cant.

The author here has to assume all parts, with no identities transferred to characters and no convictions disguised. The Danzig child who wrote his way out of dogma has lived with grounds for pessimism for more than half a century, but his room for optimism has shrunk further in the '80s: " . . . I know that the book I am planning to write can no longer pretend to certainty of the future. It will have to include a farewell to the damaged world, to wounded creatures, to us and our minds." The ever-inventive human minds have by now "thought of everything, and the end as well."

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