When I first heard about this book, around a decade ago, I was pretty excited to read about it. I was consuming a fair bit of WWII history at the time, and a story about Danzig up to and during the war sounded pretty fascinating. With all that said, this book ended up being a slog, stretching out over half a year and happily put aside to read all of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Perhaps it was the translation, or perhaps it was the style of narrative. I’ve read a number of books that sketch a character’s life in total rather than work in a traditional three act structure. To me even when the particular episodes are interesting, I always lose interest when it becomes clear that there is no particular direction, only a series of events linked by a personality. I don’t need a story to follow the traditional story path of introduction, rising action, climax, but it’s nice to see that there is some direction, some driving point to the whole thing.
It’s a strange story, but unlike a number of strange stories none of the oddness ever really resonated much with me. It’s a narrative that seems to be extremely reliant on your feelings about the characters in it, more so than the actual events, and I found most of them too difficult to empathize with to care what happened to them. This is especially true of the narrator, a stubborn, stand-offish, selfish and bizarrely obsessive about nurses and the sexual lifestyles of his relatives. Unless I badly misread the book, he’s also a rapist, once successfully and once only in an attempt on a nun involving a rug. For the most part, his supposed intentional choice to remain the size of a three year old and communicate only through his drum and glass shattering shrieks for most of his life seems to only be used to make the lives of those around him fairly miserable and difficult. By half way through I was so exhausted by the whole thing that I welcomed the chance to delve into something else.
Added to that, the book seems largely unconcerned with the war itself. There’s quite a bit of foreshadowing as characters join or oppose the Nazi party, but after a climactic showdown at the Polish Post Office, the war seems to largely become an afterthought. It’s referenced in passing, but seems to have hardly any impact on the characters or the plot. Perhaps I missed the psychological subtext and deeper symbols implied in the story, as mentally checked out of the story as I was, but what was there seemed perfunctory. A wasted opportunity to look at the war’s effects on the city and the people involved in it.
I am perhaps too down on the book, and I certainly think that many people find it incredibly engaging and it is generally considered one of the greatest modern German novels. Wikipedia for instance calls the narrator a “complex, magically symbolic character, embodying the wish to dismantle the emergent Nazi party as well as the violence of the party.” I can certainly credit Grass for his excellent use of language, which he uses to create a great array of word play, and his creativity. There are a number of humorous and bizarre situations in the story which greatly impressed me.
Whatever the case, the book was not for me, I think. I was never fully engaged in the story, and I lost interest. Finishing the book felt like a chore I grudgingly took on, rather than a fun and enlightening experience.