"Peeling an Onion: A Memoir" by Gunter Grass

Grass peels back pages to craft portrait of an artist

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In its current state, the memoir has become so disreputable that its relevance in this personality-soaked age is seriously in question.

Happily, there are writers such as Gunter Grass who still respect the form. Now 80, the Nobel Prize winner turns over the stones of his long life to reveal the sources of his inspiration as both artist and writer.

Here we learn how he found the image of a child beating a small drum that he conjured into his first and best-known novel, "The Tin Drum."

   
'Peeling an Onion: A Memoir'
by Gunter Grass

Harcourt ($26)
   

At a dinner with his future wife's family in the early 1950s, "a boy about three years of age ... entered the smoke-filled room with a toy drum hanging from his neck and struck the round sheet of tin with wooden sticks. ... He was not to be deterred by bribes of chocolate or silly distractions and seemed to be looking through everyone and everything."

From that episode emerged Oskar Matzerath, the hero of Grass' novel. As the war started, he refused to grow up, staying the childlike innocent amid the horror. He only resumes his growth after the war, becoming a celebrated drummer in a nightclub called the Onion Cellar.

Grass was 11 when his town of Gdansk in Poland was retaken by the Nazis and restored to its German name, Danzig. The child of struggling German grocers, he was a member of Nazi paramilitary youth groups, then was drafted at 17 into the notorious Waffen SS in the last months of the war as a tank gunner.

Grass said he never fired a shot; in the chaotic retreat of the German army, he was wounded by Soviet fire and wound up in an American POW camp after VE Day in 1945.

Later in occupied Berlin, he played the tin washboard in a nightclub band, including one memorable night when Louis Armstrong sat in with his trio.

Parts of all of these experiences were folded into "The Tin Drum." The image of the onion is how Grass connects his life and his work.

In the novel's club, onions are chopped to cause the patrons to cry, for in post-war Germany, Grass says, the traumatized society was unable to mourn. But, "For a fee you could cry your eyes out.

"Which leads me to conclude that of all products of the soil the onion is the best suited to literature," he writes in his memoir. "Whether it unwraps the memory skin by skin or moistens dried-up tear ducts and causes tears to flow, it is a valid metaphor."

Without an onion, the tears do flow in Grass' life, even if some are metaphorical. He gradually learns of the horrors his parents and sister suffered in the Russian occupation of Gdansk, but only much later and from his sister.

His mother offered herself to the rapacious Russian troops to spare the young girl. His mother died in 1954 without revealing her shame.

Grass' early writing efforts were confined to poetry. He worked hard as a young man studying to be a sculptor and painter, working as a stonemason on grave markers and damaged buildings to earn money for his studies.

The late 1940s were a time that most Germans repressed and most Americans cared little about. Grass relives those forgotten times with humor and a resigned nonchalance.

What is striking is the picture of a people all too eager to move on past the enormous weight of the Holocaust and resume their daily lives.

Grass himself makes no excuses and freely shoulders collective guilt for his nation's crimes, but this memoir is a not a confession or plea for forgiveness.

He says he learned of the concentration camps from American troops. His reaction: "'You mean Germans did that?' we kept asking.

"'Germans could never have done that.'

"'Germans don't do that.'

"It was some time before I came gradually to understand and hestitantly admit that I had unknowingly -- or more precisely, unwilling to know -- taken part in a crime that did not diminish over the years and for which no statute of limitations would ever apply, a crime that grieves me still."

As life improved in West Germany, Grass says his paintings and poems found public recognition. Given an Olivetti typewriter as a wedding gift, the fiction writer forming behind the artwork and verse found its outlet.

"After I found that first sentence (for 'The Tin Drum') ... the words never stopped coming. I had no trouble writing from dawn to dusk. Page after page. Words and images pushed and shoved one another, trod on one another's heels: there was so much that wanted to be smelled, tasted, seen, named."

I've read no finer description of the writing experience than that one by Grass and I doubt you will, either.

The moral issues of "Peeling the Onion" are another matter. Grass was a callow teen when he became a soldier in Hitler's army, at a time when the war was lost. He said he and his comrades marched past the corpses of deserters hanged from trees on their way to the front, warnings to stay in line.

Grass served time in a prison camp and work details before rejoining the civilian society where he came to write about the brutality of war. Later in life, Grass worked on a variety of serious causes. His books speak for themselves, including this memoir that ends with publication of "The Tin Drum" in 1959.

How much of it is true will probably be never revealed, but Grass sounds no false-sounding notes. Modest about himself and his works, he merely asks us to listen to his story.



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