Memory, Down with the Ship

Brian Cook

Günter Grass’ latest novel, Crabwalk, examines the 1945 sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The worst maritime disaster in world history was the subject of a 1959 German film called Night Fell Over Gotenhafen. “Banned in the East,” Grass explains, “the film achieved only a modest success in the West, and is now forgotten, like the unfortunate ship itself, submerged in the depths of archives.”

The obscurity of the film perhaps can be readily explained, however, because “the plot was utterly predictable. Just as in all the Titanic films, a love story had to be brought in as filler … as if the sinking of an overcrowded ship weren’t exciting, the thousands of deaths not tragic enough.”

Potential readers of Crabwalk need not worry that such a flaw scars this novel. Love makes few appearances, and when it does rear its ugly head, it is quickly handed its bags and booted out the door. As Paul Pokriefke, the novel’s narrator, derisively scoffs, “Love? Forget about that till you’re past seventy, and by then the parts will have stopped working anyway.” Such revulsion makes sense in this context, because the Wilhelm Gustloff—and this goes a long way in explaining how the ship’s tragic fate has escaped our historical radar—was a Nazi ship. And as we all know, there are no Nazi love stories.

Today, the only Nazi stories are hate stories, but these split into two categories. There are stories about the Nazis’ hatred, and there are stories about hating the Nazis’ hatred. Grass has written a novel of the latter category, or rather, he has created another subdivision, writing about the effects of this hatred of hatred and how, ironically, and harrowingly, they might lead some back to the unthinkable, the impossible: a Nazi love story.

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For obvious, blood-soaked reasons, history doesn’t rate too highly with most literary aestheticians. To Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, it was the perpetual “nightmare” from which he was constantly “trying to awake.” Less poetic but charged with the bitter humor Grass is justly renown for, Pokriefke observes that “history, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”

Crabwalk interrogates this continuous interplay between forces past and present, and its title suggests just how fluid and intertwined the two are. Weaving a tale of many tales set in different times, Grass eschews a straightforward chronological structure in favor of a “crabwalk,” an approach of “seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly.”

No doubt Grass wishes the German audience he writes for will do the same. In the late ’60s, Grass was critical of West Germany’s rising New Left figures (Schröder and Fischer among them) for their blanket—and because after-the-fact, completely useless—condemnations of their parents’ generation. Content with finger-pointing and scapegoating, they made no attempt to acknowledge the immense suffering endured by their civilian parents during the war, choosing instead simply to ignore it.

Writing from a present-day Germany where news reports indicate a rise in neo-Nazi activity, Grass is still fuming about this silence. Making sporadic appearances as Pokriefke’s weary boss, Grass himself at one point tells him, “Never … should his generation have kept silent about such misery, merely because its own sense of guilt was so overwhelming, merely because for years the need to accept responsibility and show remorse took precedence, with the result that they abandoned the topic to the right wing. This failure was staggering.” Crabwalk, then, is Grass’ belated attempt to redress this failure.

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Grass’ enlistment of Pokriefke as narrator is an indicator of the negative perfection Crabwalk achieves. A literal bastard, Pokriefke escaped the harsh confines of East Germany, only to make a mess of his life in the West. After dropping out of university, Pokrieke began writing at a right-wing tabloid, Morgenpost, before self-revulsion kicked in, turning him, weakly, leftward. A self-confessed “run-of-the-mill journalist” who always does his best to remain “neutral,” Pokriefke’s lack of ambition and conviction ruins his loveless marriage with Gabi, who in turn alienates him from his quietly troubled son Konrad. To top it off, he so loathes his mother Tulla that he “never refers to [her] possessively as ‘my mother’ but only as ‘Mother.’ ” No wonder the sardonic Grass hired him.

Longtime Grass fans may remember Tulla from her adolescent appearances in Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, the last two novels of Grass’ Danzig Trilogy. Her hair has since turned ghostly white, but little else has changed. She still reeks of carpenter’s glue and remains brutally honest, brutally stupid and just plain brutal. An unnerving truth of fiction is that its most vulgar characters often provide the most pleasure, and in this regard, Tulla sets a new standard. Indeed, when confronted with a character who so unreflectively embodies doublethink that she “once declared in front of all of her comrades that she was ‘Stalin’s last faithful follower,’ and in the next breath held up Hitler’s classless KDF [Strength Through Joy] society as the model for every true Communist,” readers may find themselves experiencing a similarly contradictory combination of revulsion and intrigue.

For the novel’s characters, however, disgust, and evasion from its root sources, reign supreme. Pokriefke’s hatred of Tulla is more than reciprocated by the old woman herself, who feels that her son, in failing to write about the Wilhelm Gustloff, has abandoned his birthright. She means it literally. Because on the night of January 30, 1945, after two torpedoes from a Russian submarine had ripped into the ship’s hull, and an estimated 9,000 people (mostly refugee women and children) had been killed by the blast and the icy Baltic waters, Tulla Pokriefke, one of a few thousand survivors, gave birth to her son Paul in a rescue boat, at the exact moment the ship itself sank fully beneath the sea.

The date is important. With it, Grass runs rings around history (or vice versa) not twice, but thrice. January 30 not only marks the day, 12 years earlier, that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but also marks, 50 years earlier, the birthday of the doomed ship’s namesake, a hideous Nazi propagandist who, after being assassinated by a desperate Jew named David Frankfurter, was transformed into a martyr for Hitler’s cause.

Grass excels at tracing the disparate histories of two beings (Frankfurter and Gustloff; Marinesko, the Russian submarine captain, and the ill-fated ship) headed toward a deadly confrontation. So there are disturbing intimations when, after finally sitting down to research the ship’s demise, Pokriefke finds a neo-Nazi Web site devoted to the ship, where two young cyberpunks text-message each other while playing the roles of Gustloff and Frankfurter. Even more disturbing is Pokriefke’s realization that the virtual Gustloff sounds suspiciously like his own son Konrad.

Will history repeat itself, or, in Pokriefke’s words, will the shit keep rising? You can count on both, Grass forcefully argues, so long as one continues to view history in totalizing terms, something to be either wholly effaced, or, in reaction, wholly embraced. Consider Crabwalk, then, as a sort of plunger, diving fearlessly into a fetid pool brimming with turds of contradiction and ambiguity, and doing its best to work out the shit.

Bri­an Cook was an edi­tor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the edi­to­r­i­al staff of Play­boy magazine.
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