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Review: Günter Grass' Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland

"Ich bin kein passionierter Tagebuchschreiber. Es muß schon Ungewöhnliches anstehen, das mich in die Pflicht nimmt."(“I am not one of those people who love keeping a journal. Something unusual must be happening to inflict this ritual upon me.”)

It’s 1990 and a reticent Günter Grass is jotting down his first entry of the year. It will come to form a record of the entire year, titled Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland ('From Germany to Germany'). For someone so well acquainted with words, it’s a wonder why keeping a diary is out of his usual practice.

Günter Grass in 2012. Photo: Elisa Cabot, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet despite a timid and somewhat sluggish start, it’s not long before we’re invited to partake in Grass’s many trials and tribulations set to the backdrop of the tumultuous year of German reunification. As we transition from one Germany to another (with various stops along the way), we discover the many aspects of the late Nobel Prize winner’s personal life. Seeming perhaps somewhat sporadic at times, the diary becomes a breeding ground for future ideas, drawings and works, often being mixed with a juxtaposing mishmash of banal statements or thoughts.

By stating from the start that he is not one for keeping a journal, it hardly comes as a surprise that Grass’s tone and style remain brief and direct throughout. Dwelling upon little in great detail, the diary will serve as marginal interest to any of those wishing for a form of meticulous historical documentation.

Writing through what could be regarded as one of the most momentous years of modern German history, we are left feeling a little short-changed by his somewhat blasé attitude towards political events. Yet perhaps this attitude is a statement within itself, a reflection of Grass’s disillusionment and pessimistic outlook on “die Häßlichkeit dieser Vereinigung" ("the ugliness of this unification”).

A further aspect of critique lies within Grass’s slightly arrogant and somewhat pretentious manner. Small remarks here and there leave you feeling almost offended by his grandiose approach. From numerous allusions to being a multiple homeowner, to recording the abundance of feasts enjoyed throughout the year, Grass comes off as a little distasteful a times given the current political and economic climate within which many of his fellow citizens now find themselves.

What’s more, I couldn’t help but call into question the authenticity of the book as a whole. Being so concise and well written, it’s difficult not to speculate whether it had always been Grass’s ambition to have the diary published at a later date. Bearing no faults, its preened and polished condition casts doubt and suspicion towards its credibility and impairs the level of intimacy felt between Grass and the reader.

But once you brush off the occasional moments of ostentation, the diary teems with a medley of charming anecdotes. From the ups and downs of family life to the simple joys of gardening, we see the acclaimed author on a much more human level, Grass as an everyday man away from the spotlight. His tender enthusiasm towards his grandchildren or his cacti is even endearing at times, softening the slightly frostier attitude we may have previously developed towards him.

Grass' reluctance to dive further into political life did leave me feeling a little disgruntled, yet perhaps my own preconceptions surrounding the reunification are to blame. Despite being a little slow and mundane at times, the diary does serve as an interesting piece of literature for anyone keen on getting to know Grass on a more personal level.

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