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Ink With Spit

TOO FAR AFIELD A Novel By Gunter Grass Translated from the German by Krishna Winston; A Helen and Kurt Wolff; Book / Harcourt: 658 pp., $30

November 26, 2000|THOMAS McGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

"To mix ink with spit," Gunter Grass declared in his 1999 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as being his method, "I chew tough stringy clauses into manageable mush, babble to myself in blissful isolation and put pen to paper only when I hear the proper tone and pitch, resonance and reverberation."

Grass crashed onto the international scene with the 1959 publication of "The Tin Drum." With his creation of Oskar Matzerath, Grass secured his place in world literature. Little Oskar, a midget self-created at the age of 3, heard his parents plan his future and decided to arrest his development, staying in the shape of a child while retaining the mind of a cunning anarchistic adult. Little Oskar, whose voice can crack glass, flourished his tin drum as his only weapon against the forgetfulness and the awfulness that was German history from 1933 into the postwar period.

Paradoxically, it is only because of little Oskar that the publication of a new Grass novel is regarded as urgent news. Urgent, though readers' expectations for another comparable figure may have been disappointed over the years. With "Cat and Mouse," "Dog Years," "Local Anesthesia" and "The Rat," "The Flounder" and other works, interest in Grass seems dutiful on account of that early success. His novels have seemed increasingly to be mere acts of fancy unconnected to the real world in the way that "The Tin Drum" resonated. Surely having added to the world's imagination one living human being should be accomplishment enough?

Five years ago, however, Grass once again mixed ink with spit and produced "Too Far Afield," now finely translated into English by Krishna Winston. Triumphantly in Fonty, the central character in "Too Far Afield," Grass has delivered a creation worthy of Oskar. Fonty and Hoftaller, his companion in talk and walk, nudge, push, shove, slip, crawl, ease their way into our imagination in Berlin as the wall is coming down. "[S]triding toward their destination: tall and thin beside short and squat," Grass writes. "The outlines of their hats and coats, of dark felt and gray wool blend, converged into a unit that grew larger as it approached. The paired phenomenon seemed unstoppable. . . ."

Grass draws on readers' memories of hapless comical duos, of Laurel and Hardy or Don Quixote and his faithful Sancho Panza, as they wander through the ruins of a new Germany: "Sometimes the tall half gesticulated, sometimes the short half. Then both would wax eloquent, arms poking out of wide sleeves, the one with the long, swinging gait, the other with short, bustling steps. Their puffs of breath coalesced into little white clouds and floated off. Thus they remained ahead of and behind one another, yet grown together into a single form. Since this yoked pair never managed to march in step, it looked as though flickering silhouettes were moving across the screen. The silent film unreeled in the direction. . . ."

Unlike Thomas Bernhard or Samuel Beckett, who'd be content to write a single character speaking an endless monologue, Grass roots his historical and philosophical meditations in the world, in history, with this odd couple: They engage in dialogues, alternating to each other in the roles of straight man and comic. In the process, Grass hooks the reader with his insinuating style into following this duo in a near-700-page novel about German reunification. "Too Far Afield" is hopelessly literary, hopelessly entangled with German history--it moves between past and present, with an unnamed narrator providing the reader with background to understand everything from the first German reunification in 1871 to the horror which is the 20th century in all its coiling implications and ramifications.

But "Too Far Afield" is also something more: a witty humanistic novel, the story of Fonty, a father, husband and son, who had for many years been a cultural worker in what is nostalgically remembered as the German Democratic Republic (or, simply, East Germany). Fonty (whose real name is Theo Wuttke) likes to identify himself with the historical figure of Theodore Fontane, who is probably best known for the novel "Effie Briest." Fontane was an ironic and critical commentator on the first German reunification and was full of foreboding about it: Fonty, aware of Fontane's commentaries, is similarly pessimistic about modern Germany's latest effort at unification. Once shadowed by Hoftaller, who was in various incarnations an agent for the Kaiser's secret service, for the Gestapo, for the East German Stasi, he and Hoftaller now work for the same agency responsible for privatizing former state companies.

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