Gunter Grass - Crabwalk

Gunter Grass - Crabwalk
Rating - 8.5

While the Wilhelm Gustloff sank in the Baltic Sea after being hit by three Soviet torpedos, Tulla Pokriefke was giving birth to her son, Paul, on one of the few deiced lifeboats. As they floated away from what is thus far the single greatest loss of life in maritime history, Paul's cries rang out. From that day onwards, his mother, overbearing and overopinionated, unable to leave the ship for the rest of her life, considers that Paul's duty is to make the world remember the magnificent, doomed cruise liner, as the memory of World War II fades until only the great, sweeping events of the time remain in the mind of the people.

Paul Pokriefke is not able - or willing - to do this. He is aware of his worth, a man content with who he is and what he is capable of achieving. 'I know my limitations. I'm a run-of-the-mill journalist, who can do a decent job for short stretches. I used to have big plans...but for the most part my plans stayed on the drawing board. Then Gabi stopped taking the Pill without telling me, was soon pregnant, undeniably by me, and dragged me off to City Hall to get married. Once the squalling baby was there and the future educator had gone back to her studies, it was clear as day to me: From now on, don't expect much.' Throughout the novel, he never strays from this clear-eyed view of himself, of his place in the grand hierarchy of relationships, occupation and leisure.

His mother however, will never forget the Wilhelm Gustloff. Endlessly, always, she speaks of the sinking of the ship, detailing the sounds, emotions and feelings that she experienced. It was the great defining moment of her life, that others forget the ship is an implication that she, too, will be forgotten. What use for a white-haired old woman who harps on the past?

The reason that the Wilhelm Gustloff is mostly forgotten, even in modern day Germany, is almost certainly linked to its duties as one of the Nazi passenger ships allocated to the Kraft durch Freude (KdF), or 'strength through joy' program. The KdF allowed hard working Germans a chance for a good, clean, exciting and stimulating holiday for very little money. The intent was to provide a 'classless' experience, in that roughly middle-class leisure activities such as concerts, day trips and luxury cruises were available for anyone who could pay the extremely low cost. The KdF was an immensely popular German experiment, but the taint of Hitler's World War II, and the shadowy difficulties associated with the Wilhelm Gustloff, meant that it became a small portion of German Guilt that was best left behind. When the German people have such monumental issues such as Auschwitz, the Holocaust and World War II to deal with, it makes sense that a 'minor' incident such as the sinking of a ship filled with (mostly) non-combatants would be swept under the rug.

Paul, like many Germans of his age - for the novel is set alongside the advent of the internet as a popular medium, with Paul celebrating his 50th birthday in 1995 - chooses to forget the KdF, the Wilhelm Gustloff, the smaller portions of the war. He is concerned with being the man that he is, not a 'survivor', or the only child born on the ship on the day that it sank.

His son, Konrad, has developed a website that is devoted to the man from which the Wilhelm Gustloff cruise-ship received its name. Gustloff was the leader of the Swiss NSDAP party, and was assassinated in 1936 by David Frankfurter, a Jew. Konrad is outraged at the memory loss of his people, declaring Gustloff a great hero, and Frankfurter, a terrible enemy of the state. Paul, while idling browsing the internet, discovers his son's site, and is horrified at the vitriolic hate that spews forth from the anonymous webpage of his child. When a young man begins to post under the name of 'David Frankfurter', purporting to represent the ideals and thoughts of the original murderer, Konrad assumes the stance of Gustloff and the Nazi party in a way that will prove fatal.

Crabwalk, as a narrative, involves a 'scuttling backward to move forward'. Grass moves the story back and forth and roundabout through time. Generally, we are either experiencing firsthand the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, or we are involved with Paul's examination of the events in his son's life. Very rarely do we intrude into any specific portion of the novel which could be termed 'action'. No, Grass is writing a study, an essay, an examination of the ways in which the German people struggle with what has been done then, and what they need to do now.

Paul is a mouthpiece for Grass, a chance to extrapolate the metaphors of Germany that still form the core of that great, flawed country. Konrad is the hatred, the racial exclusion, the determination of the 'German way', regardless of cost. David, while professing himself a Jew, does not shy away from his own hatred, his own firm beliefs. In a way, they represent two sides of the same coin - they are strong-willed, determined, and will do anything and say anything to get their viewpoint across. Paul, a removed observer of their internet interactions, is the voice of reason, which is to say he doesn't have a voice at all. While Konrad and David spout grand theories and obscure facts, Paul is left in the middle wondering what to make of it all.

It is to be supposed that Paul represents that majority of thought and feeling within Germany. He is left bemused - and occasionally, amused - at the outpourings of Konrad and David, yet he does nothing to sway or intercept or stop their communication. The end result, when it comes, is one that is foreshadowed from the very beginning of the novel. The characters, as metaphors, simply must arrive at their intended goal, no matter the consequence, no matter the cost.

It would be dishonest to review a work of Gunter Grass' - and one as explicitly linked to World War II - without mentioning his 2006 admission of serving as a member of the Waffen-SS. This book, like all of his works, can be seen as an atonement, but also an explanation. With his writing, he is examining the German consciousness, struggling to understand how an intelligent, hard-working, cultured nation could produce such a dark time in world history. Grass may not have the answers - not for himself, and not for us - but he is more than capable of presenting his country, in all its flaws, with all its greatness. Crabwalk is a novel that is important for the message it holds, and for the honesty it shares. As Grass says, 'It doesn't end. Never will it end.'. We must remember, we must consider, we must think and study and learn from what has happened before our time, so that it does not happen again. We are all responsible.




German Authors