by Gnnter Grass/translated by Krishna Winston
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|Moral seasickness on an Unsinkable Vessel
by Eric Miller
Anyone who suffers from a troubled conscience may have an interest in the history of Germany. In Jewish and Christian tradition, scripture once sustained the notion of guilt. Scripture has fewer fully persuaded adherents now. But history provides a library of secular texts to replace those that were once divinely sanctioned. In these new texts, the Fall of Man may prove to be strictly dateable. One such text is Hitler's Germany; one of the more energetic exegetes at work on this text is Gnnter Grass. Grass' new novel Crabwalk induces moral seasickness.
Seasickness is an appropriate response. The novel centres around the fate of a German pleasure ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, ultimately sunk by a Soviet submarine when, in the last winter of the Second World War, the ship was packed with refugees and soldiers fleeing from the Russian advance. The novel's narrator, Paul Pokriefke, tells us "it can only be estimated that in the end the ship held close to four and a half thousand infants, children, and youths." He concedes that the Wilhelm Gustloff had been armed, if only lightly, and thus presented, according to one way of arguing, a legitimate target. The casualty toll exceeded that of the Titanic disaster. A detail as indelible as the stain on Lady Macbeth's handłthe German ship bore the name of a Nazi activist prominent in Switzerland.
David Frankfurter, a Jew, had assassinated Wilhelm Gustloffłin whose posthumous honour the vessel, launched in the late 1930s, was christened. The pleasure ship, regardless of whatever else happened to it, thus served always to commemorate by name a man whom Nazi propaganda multifariously promoted as a "martyr." Any effort to memorialize the catastrophe that befell the ship has therefore reflexively evoked the memory of a Nazi functionary, as well as the error or cruelty of the Russian submarine commander Aleksandr Marinesko. Crabwalk sickeningly documents how a given event or material object may remind us simultaneously of evil and innocence, different kinds and orders of evil and innocencełand in an assortment neither reason nor passion is well equipped to disentangle. In our natures we are doomed to love. But our love often comes associated with the commission of wrong.
Freighted with such heavy historical cargo, is Grass's novel entirely successful? No. Paul Pokriefke's mother, Ursula (or Tulla), a survivor of the shipwreck, remarks at one juncture, "I could write a novel," and this assertion already betrays the unlikelihood that such a novel could succeed outstandingly as a contribution to its genre. The fiction, though interesting, is shattered by the power of the facts with which it deals, just as the Wilhelm Gustloff exploded at the detonation of three Soviet torpedoes against its hull. The fiction has interest, though something like allegory supervenes excessively in such matters as the representation of fathers and sons, the reciprocal culpabilities of the generations. The narrator, Paul Pokriefke, whose birth began even as the torpedoes struck the Wilhelm Gustloff, has worked as a journalist of no particular repute or principle. The torpedo boat L÷we rescued Paul's mother, Ursula, and therefore infant Paul himself. As a hack writer, Paul himself has drifted, politically, from right to left with lukewarm unconviction; his tonełthe tone of the novelłis grainy, tired, an effect amplified by the kind of slang with which Krishna Winston has chosen to translate it. Most journalism is immoral by its willful suppression of imagination, by its tactical scanting of empathy, by its desire to score points in the absence of any evidence that the shells have hit their mark. But Grass only imitates journalism. His book does tiełand continue ever tighter to tieła knot in the stomach, not from suspense but from sheer dismay at the operation of history and fate. For Paul Pokriefke, and then his son Konrad, the Wilhelm Gustloff becomes "the everlastingly sinking ship," unsinkable therefore in a fashion the engineers of the Titanic could never have conceived. Throughout the reading of Crabwalk, I felt ill. What medical science calls the "enteric brain," what D.H. Lawrence called the "solar plexus"łthis intuitive organ flinched. The conclusion of the novel, disappointing because sensational, too easily ameliorated my ethical discomfort. Nevertheless, the discomfort was real enough to revive on retrospective contemplation of the work.
The novel, really a novel of ideas, forces into the forefront of consciousness several insights of a painful nature. It makes the reader perceive that every gravestone is a kind of plug solemnly placed to stop the jabbering mouth of sophistry. At the end of the novel, Paul Pokriefke is told, "no one says aloud what he thinks. And anyone who tries to is already lying in the first words that come out ą Nothing is locked tighter than a mind." Human life perpetuates itself so long as it can rationalize its misdemeanours. What we love about people is perhaps the constant, piquant disjunction between their bodies (which cannot easily lie) and their voluble atmosphere of personal apologyłtheir characteristic manner of evasion, their crabwalk. As Gnnter Grass says in his disturbing book, "Even in the moment of death, a person can cheat in his thoughts." To say goodbye to someone's familiar pattern of self-exculpation is as hard as letting go of his or her living hand for the last time. Under the pressure of guilt, even our truths become lies. Grass dramatizes such verities in the figures of Paul Pokriefke's mother Ursulała woman in her small way as troubling as Leni Riefenstahlłand in Paul Pokriefke's son Konrad.
The hyperactive self-justification of human beings becomes social when the question of public monuments arises. Grass wittily recounts which historical personnel got which monuments, if any. Wilhelm Gustloff, Aleksandr Marinesko and David Hamburger unevenly and precariously receive their memorial due. Having been sentenced to Siberia for three years, for example, Marinesko nevertheless eventually merited elevation to the status of hero of the Soviet Union, the monument being erected in St. Petersburg.
In connection with memory, Grass captures something of the spectral persistences, the powerful indignations that the Internet propagates. Websites are the afterlife to which anyone and anything may aspirełlimbo rather than heaven or hell. Konrad Pokriefke runs a Website devoted to the Nazi Wilhelm Gustloff and all that has to do with him, including Gustloff's assassin Hamburger; to this site is attracted another young man who opposes the neo-Nazi rhetoric that Pokriefke dispenses. Grass characterizes their cyberspatial debates sometimes by a plausible pathos; his narrator Paul Pokriefke actually calls the disputants "bosom enemies." Here Grass indicates how fine is the line between friendship and murderousness, how love and hate can be variants of the same feeling; he shows how nearly adjoining are affability and atrocity, how demented bigotry can yet coexist with humaneness. What is always in view and rarely in action is the universality of love. Ursula Pokriefke, Paul's mother, meanwhile incarnates quite adequately the hard fact that to rescue a human being from a disaster such as the sinking of a ship involves not just maintaining the existence of a living body but also that of a mass of inchoate prejudices. The rescuer may disagree with the prejudices of the one whom he or she has rescuedłyet along with everything else those prejudices are what have been saved. Walter Benjamin noted that all works of civilization are also monuments of barbarism. Certainly the pleasure ship Wilhelm Gustloff, by all accounts physically a magnificent vessel, proves Benjamin's point to the point of redundancy. Grass's Crabwalk extends Benjamin's insight. Many human lives likewise compound civilization with barbarism; even death cannot resolve the inconsistencies that engage the historian and the fictionist alike, for all are implicated in the condition of shockingly sincere hypocrisy under which a portion of our existence passes.