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Uncomfortable truths

Peeling the Onion A Memoir Gunter Grass Translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim Harcourt: 426 pp., $26

June 24, 2007|Natasha Randall | Natasha Randall is a critic and the translator, most recently, of Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" for Modern Library.

GUNTER GRASS has put himself in the line of fire again. The first time was when he served in the German army in 1944. This time, it is with the publication of his memoir, "Peeling the Onion," that the Nobel laureate has launched himself into a space that leaves him open to attack. The first time, he was the 17-year-old youth who "saw himself as a man, was interested in military hardware." Now he is exposing a crucial and damning detail of his past, one that he has long suppressed.

A loud-spoken antagonist of Nazi denial, Grass has been candid about belonging to the Hitler Youth and serving in the German armed forces. But the revelation of "Peeling the Onion" is that he suppressed his affiliation with Germany's most brutal apparatus, the Waffen SS.

Known as an ideological and forceful military division, the Waffen SS was brought to justice in the postwar Nuremberg trials for its active participation in the Holocaust. For a long time, Grass had claimed that he had been drafted into an antiaircraft unit near Danzig. On the official Nobel Prize website, you can listen to him say the war ended when he was 17. But, even though at 15 he was rejected for service on a submarine, he was drafted two years later by the Waffen SS in 1944. His war, then, began when he was 17.

The young Grass had an experience of war that will resonate with many soldiers who have been on active duty. He spent the war leaping out of the way of exploding shells and watching his fellow soldiers get blown to pieces by Soviet artillery. Grass was spared from death often, thanks to freakish occurrences: He was once left behind in a shelter by his troop because he couldn't ride a bicycle; moments later, his fellow conscripts were all killed as they put their feet to the pedals. Luckily, for him, his mother thought bicycles were a frivolity, a waste of money.

Grass doesn't seem to have had anything other than a foot soldier's experience of war. As a young man, he writes in the new book, he didn't have a concrete idea of what the SS represented. "I more likely viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up, a pocket like Demyansk forced open, a stronghold like Kharkov regained. I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent." He says he was shot at but never fired his gun throughout the war. And he seemingly knew nothing of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis until his detention in an American POW camp, where an American "education officer" showed him photographs of scenes at Hitler's concentration camps: "I saw the piles of corpses, the ovens; I saw the starving and the starved, the skeletal bodies of the survivors from another world. I couldn't believe it."

In the delicate but halting detail of a septuagenarian who is summoning the fragments of memory, this memoir chronicles the author's circuitous path via wartime Europe to becoming a writer. "Peeling the Onion" is more than the stories of a soldier -- it is a beautiful account of the ebbings of deprivations and the flowing of relief, both physical and metaphysical. Grass explains himself in terms of "three hungers," which are the driving forces of this narrative and his life: "The ordinary hunger everyone knows could be alleviated for hours by turnip soup with a few sparse globules of fat or even by frost-damaged potatoes, and the desire for carnal love, that panting, unbidden, unyielding onslaught of self-renewing lust, could be deadened by a chance encounter or a few flicks of the wrist. My hunger for art, however, the need to make an image for myself of everything standing still or in motion ... was insatiable."

Grass lusted, starved, escaped death, witnessed horrors, was wounded and imprisoned. Eventually, he set himself adrift in the direction of art. His postwar wanderings sent him to work in a potash mine, as a stone mason, and then to art school, where he studied sculpture. And the poems that he wrote throughout those years were the nourishment for what he calls his "third hunger."

But, in his words, "Like hunger, guilt and the shame that follows gnaw away at you, all the time. My hunger was only periodic, but my shame.... " Grass doesn't finish this sentence. His memoir dips in and out of his acknowledgments of contrition, just as his text gets close to and removes itself from his younger self. "I was silent," he writes. "Because so many others have kept silent, the temptation is great ... to shift the blame onto the collective guilt, or to talk about oneself only figuratively in the third person: He was, saw, did, said, he kept silent."

Indeed, many moments in "Peeling the Onion" shift from "I" to "he" -- moments in which Grass perhaps isn't sure what that boy was thinking, when he can't "make" his younger self speak. So Grass consults "the onion" to clear the fog that enters his view of the past:

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