In the summer of 1967, when the West was – perhaps for the last time – in the clutches of the optimism disease, when the microscopic, invisible bacillus of optimism made its young people believe that they would overcome some day, when unemployment was an irrelevance and the future still existed, and when I was twenty years old, I bought from a bookshop in Cambridge a paperback copy of Ralph Manheim’s English translation of The Tin Drum. In those days everybody had better things to do than read. There was the music and there were the movies and there was also, don’t forget, the world to change. Like many of my contemporaries I spent my student years under the spell of Buñuel, Godard, Ray, Wajda, Welles, Bergman, Kurosawa, Jancsó, Antonioni, Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Laing, Marcuse and, inevitably, the two-headed fellow known to Grass readers as Marxengels. In spite of all these distractions, however, Oskar Matzerath’s autobiography had me hooked, and I stayed hooked all the way from grandmother Anna Koljaiczek’s wide skirt, past fizz powder and horse’s head full of eels, right up to Anna’s dark opposite, the wicked Black Witch.

There are books that open doors for their readers, doors in the head, doors whose existence they had not previously suspected. And then there are readers who dream of becoming writers; they are searching for the strangest door of all, scheming up ways to travel through the page, to end up inside and also behind the writing, to lurk between the lines while other readers, in their turn, pick up books and begin to dream. For these Alices, these would-be migrants from the World to the Book, there are (if they are lucky) books which give them permission to travel, so to speak, permission to become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be. A passport is a kind of book. And my passports, the works that gave me the permits I needed, were The Film Sense by Serge Eisenstein, the ‘Crow’ poems of Ted Hughes, Borges’s Fictions, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros – and, that summer of 1967, The Tin Drum.

This is what Grass’s great novel said to me in its drumbeats: Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves – that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers. I have tried to learn the lessons of the midget drummer. And one more, which I got from that other, immense work, Dog Years: When you’ve done it once, start all over again and do it better.


Günter Grass, Danzig’s most famous son (Lech Walesa, the only other contender for the title, inhabits – it’s important to insist – not Danzig but Gdańsk), who now lives partly in Berlin – a city which itself seems to have migrated to a new and starker location – and partly in a north German landscape which reminds him of the wide, diked vistas of his writing and his youth, is a figure of central importance in the literature of migration, and the migrant is, perhaps, the central or defining figure of the twentieth century. And like many migrants, like many people who have lost a city, he has found it in his luggage, packed in an old tin box. Kundera’s Prague, Joyce’s Dublin, Grass’s Danzig: exiles, refugees, migrants have carried many cities in their bedrolls in this century of wandering. And let nobody underestimate the obstinacy of such writers; they will not tolerate the Gdańsking of their past. In Grass’s transported city Labesweg is still Labesweg, and the shipyard which saw the birth of Solidarity is not called Lenin, but Schichau. (Here, once again, I feel a small affinity. I grew up on Warden Road, Bombay; now it’s Bhulabhai Desai Road. I went to school near Flora Fountain; now the school is near Hutatma Chowk. Of course the new, decolonized names tell of a confident, assertive spirit in the independent state; but the loss of past attachments remains a loss. What to do? Shrug. And pickle the past in books.)

In one sense, Grass is less than a complete migrant. A full migrant suffers, traditionally, a triple disruption: he loses his place, he enters into an alien language, and he finds himself surrounded by beings whose social behaviour and code is very unlike, and sometimes even offensive to, his own. And this is what makes migrants such important figures: because roots, language and social norms have been three of the most important parts of the definition of what it is to be a human being. The migrant, denied all three, is obliged to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human.

Well, Grass certainly lost his place (and, as I suggested, found that he’d brought it along with him). It’s possible to argue that he lost a part of his language, the Kashubian dialects of his youth which he attempted to preserve in his literature; but here I’m on thin ice, as my knowledge of German is probably about as great as Grass’s knowledge of Urdu . . . At any rate, apart from the dialects, it seems difficult to suggest that Grass is a writer out of language, and certainly he has remained within a society whose social mores are known to him. Indeed, as his essays show, his dedication to the idea of a German civilisation which embraces both West and East Germany and which finds its true expression in the German language, is complete. One may therefore legitimately ask how useful this notion of a half-migrant Grass, a maybe-only-one-third-migrant Grass, really is.

I think it is useful, because there are other senses in which Grass seems to me very much more than merely a fragment or percentage of a migrant writer. Migration across national frontiers is by no means the only form of the phenomenon. In many ways, given the international and increasingly homogeneous nature of metropolitan culture, the journey from, for example, the Scottish Highlands to London is a more extreme act of migration than a move from, say, Bombay. But I want to go further than such literalistic discussion: because migration also offers us one of the richest metaphors of our age. The very word metaphor, with its roots in the Greek words for bearing across, describes a sort of migration, the migration of ideas into images. Migrants – borne-across humans – are metaphorical beings in their very essence; and migration, seen as a metaphor, is everywhere around us. We all cross frontiers; in that sense, we are all migrant peoples.

Günter Grass is a migrant from his past, and now I am no longer talking about Danzig. He grew up, as he has said, in a house and a milieu in which the Nazi view of the world was treated quite simply as objective reality. Only when the Americans came at the war’s end and the young Grass began to hear how things had really been in Germany did he understand that the lies and distortions of the Nazis were not the plain truth. What an experience: to discover that one’s entire picture of the world is false, and not only false, but based upon a monstrosity. What a task for any individual: the reconstruction of reality from rubble.

I am suggesting that we can see this process as an act of migration, from an old self into a new one. That the end of World War II was for Grass, as it was for Germany, as tough and disrupting a frontier to cross as any one can imagine. And if we call Grass a migrant of this type, we quickly discover that the triple dislocation classically suffered by migrants has indeed been in operation in the case of Migrant Grass, the man who migrated across history. The first dislocation, remember, is the loss of roots. Grass lost not only Danzig: he lost – he must have lost – the sense of home as a safe, ‘good’ place. How could it retain that feeling in the light of what he learned about it at the war’s end? The second dislocation is linguistic. We know – and Grass has written often and eloquently – of the effect of the Nazi period on the German language, of the need for the language to be rebuilt, pebble by pebble, from the wreckage; because a language in which evil finds so expressive a voice is a dangerous tongue. The practitioners of ‘rubble literature’ – Grass himself being one of the most prominent – took upon themselves the Herculean task of re-inventing the German language, of tearing it apart, ripping out the poisoned parts, and putting it back together.

And the third disruption is social. Once again we can argue that the transformation in German society, or, rather, in the Germany that the growing Grass knew and experienced, was of the same order as the change in social codes that a migrant from one country to another experiences: that Nazi Germany was, in some ways, another country. Grass had to unlearn that country, that way of thinking about society, and learn a new one.

I see Grass, then, as a double migrant: a traveller across borders in the self, and in Time. The vision underlying his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is in many ways, I believe, a migrant’s vision.

This is what the triple disruption of reality teaches migrants: that reality is an artefact, that it does not exist until it is made, and that, like any other artefact, it can be made well or badly, and that it can also, of course, be unmade. What Grass learned on his journey across the frontiers of history was Doubt. Now he distrusts all those who claim to possess absolute forms of knowledge; he suspects all total explanations, all systems of thought which purport to be complete. Among the world’s great writers, he is quintessentially the artist of uncertainty, whose symbol might easily have been the question mark if it were not the Snail. To experience any form of migration is to get a lesson in the importance of tolerating others’ points of view. One might almost say that migration ought to be essential training for all would-be democrats.


About that Snail. This social-democratic mollusc, under whose spiralling shell are housed the ideas of hurrying slowly, caution, circumspection and gradualism, has served Grass well, and also earned him his share of brickbats from those who advocate more rapid rates of advance. I don’t want to enter that dispute here, noting only that there are times – for instance during his advocacy of nuclear disarmament – when Grass himself appears far from Snailesque. But I should like to use the Snail as evidence that Grass lives more comfortably in images, in ideas, than in places. This, too, is a characteristic of migrants. He is, after all, a metaphorical being.

The migrant intellect roots itself in itself, in its own capacity for imagining and re-imagining the world. This can lead to difficulties: is it because the United States is a migrants’ culture that its citizens can, at times (election campaigns, for instance), appear to prefer image to substance? But the love of images also contains great potential. When the world is seen through ideas, through metaphors, it becomes a richer place. When Grass looks at Czechoslovakia through the writing of Kafka, or contemporary Japanese urban sprawl through the images of Alfred Döblin, he helps us see more, and more clearly.

A writer who understands the artificial nature of reality is more or less obliged to enter the process of making it. This is perhaps why Grass has so determinedly sought a public role, why he has used his great fame as a novelist as a platform from which to speak on the many issues – the bomb, the invasion of our privacy by data banks, the relationship between the nations of the rich North and the poor South – which concern him. And since to argue about reality is to be at once creative and political, it is not surprising that when Grass writes about literature he finds himself writing about politics, and when he discusses political issues, the quirky perspectives of literature have a habit of creeping in.

In his essay ‘The Destruction of Mankind Has Begun’ Grass makes the telling point that, for the first time in the history of the species, writers can no longer assume the existence of posterity. He says that, as a result, ‘the book I am planning to write . . . will have to include a farewell to the damaged world, to wounded creatures, to us and our minds, which have thought of everything and the end as well.’ The composition of elegies is indeed one of the proper responses for a writer to make when night is drawing in. But outside his fiction, in his political activities and writings, Grass is making a second, and equally proper response. What this work says is: we aren’t dead yet. We may be in deep trouble but we aren’t done for. And while there is life, there must be analysis, struggle, persuasion, argument, polemic, re-thinking, and all the other longish words that add up to one very short word: hope.


Photograph © Tekstman, Günter Grass, 1982

A Conversation Piece