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Out of India : SHOW YOUR TONGUE by Gunter Grass; translated by John E. Woods (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book / Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $34.95; 214 pp., illustrated; 0-15-182-090-2)

August 13, 1989|Sara Suleri | Suleri teaches English at Yale and is the author of "Meatless Days" (University of Chicago Press). and

When novelists of dignity and repute take brief journeys to countries other than their own, and shortly thereafter produce works that span the genres of travelogues and political commentaries, the results are rarely as distinguished as is Gunter Grass' extraordinary account of his sojourn in Calcutta. To readers disappointed by the hasty authority of such texts as V. S. Naipaul's "Among the Believers" or Salman Rushdie's "The Jaguar's Smile," "Show Your Tongue" offers a highly original counterpoint. The work startles both in its density of detail and in its overarching anticipation of the very impossibility of its own self-chosen task. The spectacle of Third World poverty--its gaudy declaration of need--is by now surely too familiar a Western stereotype to generate any sense of novelty, but Grass' powerful meditation explodes the stereotypical in order to address the nature of the cultural cliches in which he may be complicit.

Rather than reading as a vivid description of the terrible beauty of Calcuttan slums, "Show Your Tongue" unfolds as a document of cultural warning: Its indictment is too meticulous in its multivalences to be directed at one area of the globe alone. Instead, it substitutes the intimacy of personal narrative for the conclusiveness of historical judgment, and in the process rewrites the intersections between economic, aesthetic and ethical terror.

This intersection is dramatically reiterated in the structural virtuosity of the narrative, which subdivides into three self-repeating parts. "Show Your Tongue" opens with Grass' diary accounts of his residence in Calcutta, then moves into a series of sketches he made of the incidents already described, and concludes with a poem that yet once more must rehearse the idioms of indignation and shame that the historic facticity of India generates. The immediacy of Grass' language belies the careful juxtapositions through which Calcutta is transformed into a dialogue between narrative and illustration: The very random quality of the diary with its slippage into image reveals how each form serves as subterfuge or distraction from the conclusion of the other. "And, everywhere," Grass writes, "cows lying diagonal to traffic, arranged beside sleepers, or piled into a landscape of hills. As if, already so distant by intent, I wanted to sketch myself into a greater distance . . . as if sketching is an excuse to interrupt these words."

Grass' structural originality is empowered by a desire to create coherence out of his narrative's own inchoate responses, but perhaps what most quickens the text is its brave confrontation with the literalism of suffering: "If you lent (for a fee) one of these slum hovels, created from bare necessity, to the city of Frankfurt am Main, and had it set down next to the Deutsche Bank high-rise, where the hewn granite sculpture by the artist Bill says yes, always yes to the towering bank, because as an endless loop it loves only itself, is incontrovertibly beautiful and immaculately endorses the circulation of money stamped valid for eternity--if, I say, you replaced that granite celebrating its flawless self, and set down instead one single slum hovel (then) beauty would be on the side of the hovel, and truth too, even the future." No pieties of exploitation compel such a claim, which is as interested in the aesthetic of contemporary Germany as it is in that of contemporary India. But, as Grass urgently records what he calls the "aesthetic of poverty," Calcutta emerges as a vast metaphor for the reality of all urban pain. It offers little in the way of the exotic and less in the way of mystery. The terror of it is that it is merely real.

Nor is this reality, with its concomitant deprivations, its losses, represented as of solely Eastern provenance. Post-World War II European history is very much the secret sharer in Grass' study of Calcutta as a city victimized by both colonialism and post-colonial nationalism. Thus Grass seeks explanation for "the diffuse Bengali longing for a Fuhrer figure. . . . The partitions of Germany and Bengal."

Two figures haunt the narrative as symbols of unification and separation. The first, a historical figure from India's Independence Movement, Subhas Chandra Bose, represents the clear outrage of fascist commitment. The second, more ambivalent, is the goddess Kali. And, in a violent attempt to read mythology into a more crucial and historical context, Grass sees Kali everywhere in Calcutta.

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