Peeling the Onion
Harvill Secker 2007
I enjoy mixing older reads with newer ones so to follow on from my review of the 2016 released Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, I’ve opted for a charity shop find, Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion published back in 2007.
I’ve a particular interest in literary biographies, autobiographies and memoires. They seem to have made up the bulk of my reading this year and so I thought I’d end the year with one more.
I knew of Gunter Grass by reputation only, some of it more positive than others. A Noble Prize winning author controversy also surrounds Grass after it was revealed in this very book that he’d voluntarily joined the Hitler Youth aged 17 and then was drafted into the Waffen-SS. So it was with extreme curiosity about that particular chapter in his life, that I approached this book.
Peeling the Onion is a memoir detailing Grass’ upbringing in Danzig in what is now Poland, though at the time came under Nazi control. He chronicles his experiences as a boy soldier and finishes with the writing of what would become his most famous novel, The Tin Drum.
There was something about this book that didn’t sit well with me. I sat for some time pondering what it was and I came up with a number of possible reasons. Firstly, it feels unapologetic. There’s a passage where he discusses an incident where his Latin teacher disappears, something that was becoming a pattern and yet the only real concern he voiced was that, “Monsignor was suddenly no longer there to test us on our vocabulary.” (p.37) He admits to asking no questions (not that he was alone in this), not even when the teacher returns, clearly having been in camp. Friends disappear and it isn’t that he doesn’t know it’s happening, he does, is that he never stops to ask why. This seems to be the crux of Peeling the Onion. It can be frustrating, as a modern reader, knowing what we know now, not to want to throttle young Gunter Grass for of his naivety.
The second reason was that throughout the book he comes across as a follower, a sheep. For example, he recounts the story of a young blue-eyed, blond haired boy who was in the Labour Service at the same time as him. Grass describes him as good-natured and known for his camaraderie but he outright refuses to carry arms, repeating a mantra “Wedon’tdothat” over and over, much to the anger of his superiors and then the other boys as he’s made an example of. “I, too, worked up my ire against him. We were expected to give him a hard time, and so we did…He was beaten in his barracks by the very boys whose boots he had polished mirror bright…But neither the hazing nor the beatings nor anything else could force him to carry arms.” (p.85) Instead the poor boy is transferred but no one asked where to, including himself, “But we all knew. He had not been discharged as proven unfit for service; no, we whispered, ‘He has long been ripe for the concentration camp.’” (p.87) The writer goes further though, he admits that,
“I was if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything I had had rock-solid faith in died down, and the resulting calm in my head prevented any further thought from taking wing: mindlessness had filled the space.” (p.88)
He knows he is among the guilty and yet chooses mindless instead. For me this seems unforgiveable.
Again and again Grass recounts tales of individuals who stood up to authority whilst he chooses to conform. His lack of action is in stark contrast to those who made a stand. Perhaps Gunter Grass felt that by laying himself bare to his readers we would feel greater shred of sympathy for him but in fact it was the exact opposite of what I found myself thinking as I read further and further into the book. The more I read the more appealed I became.
He acknowledges what it means to be on the wrong side of history, the losing side and yet as a grown man writing about his experiences sixty years later, he cannot find in that young boy, any horror in what he was doing, especially as he stands in the recruitment office joining the SS unit. He recognises that there are plenty of excuses for what he did and yet for decades he, “Refuses to admit to the word and to the double letters,” instead wanting to conceal it out of shame. The most glaring sentence comes next and I believe it’s worth quoting in full. He states,
“True, during the tank gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light, but the ignorance I claim could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with that for the rest of my life.” (p.111)
This seems to me in contradiction to his earlier recollections of individuals disappearing and his knowledge of the camps. Peeling the Onion feels like one giant attempt at justifying his actions or lack thereof.
The only redeeming light of this book were the sections where he describes his relationship with his mother who nurtured his love of books. But these were few and far between. Learning what we do from the earlier passages of the book it then becomes harder to care as the novel progresses and we learn about his time as a POWQ and then more about Gunter Grass the writer.
Can I recommend this book? Is it worth reading? The answer is yes, purely on the basis that all readers out there can judge for themselves both the literary merits of Grass’ memoir but also the moral ones too.