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Book Review: Too Far Afield by Gunter Grass

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In 2000’s My Century, a novelistic portrait of a past imperfect, Gunter Grass described his contradictory feelings upon hearing about the falling of the Berlin Wall and the onset of the reunification of East Germany and West Germany in 1989: “We got the news late, but when it finally came I cried out in joy and panic – like thousands of others, I’m sure – ‘Madness! Sheer madness!’ and then … sank into thoughts running both forward and back.”

If a circumspect Grass tempered his initial emotionalism with his fear of another Anschluss and reinvigorated German militarism, it was not only due to apprehension about history repeating itself, but also to concern for Germany’s present and future. As Grass noted in an interview, “I am confronted with several realities, and these realities are … mixed up with politics. If you have a story happening in Germany, you may think in the beginning it’s a very private story, but you are connected very much with the results of the German past. Not only with the past, but the reaction of the present to the past.”

The infusion of politics and history into Grass’ life and thought, and his penchant for reflection and foresight, were foremost in the presentation to Grass of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. In such works as Cat and Mouse, The Flounder and his epic first novel The Tin Drum, Grass, in his “position as the great prober of the history of this century,” uses his “frolicsome black fables [to] portray the forgotten face of history,” and to review “contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and forgotten: the victims, losers, and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed them.”

In Too Far Afield, a complex, ambitious but unwieldy, unfocused and disappointing novel translated (by Krishna Winston) from the 1995 German edition, Grass continues his exploration of deceit and unfulfilled promise as he confronts a changing Germany. Seventy-year-old Theo Wuttke, a former war correspondent and somewhat pedantic intellectual figure, knows such deceit and disillusionment too well. Now employed as a glorified office boy at the East German agency responsible for privatizing state-held companies, Wuttke has weathered, time and again, “the vicissitudes of a botched life.”

His sly but friendly rival, Ludwig Hoftaller, a professional spy who has been shuffled from the Prussian police to the Gestapo to the East German Stasi, and who has shadowed Wuttke for years, also is employed at the agency. At the core of the novel are the ruminations and commentary of these two “interlocking pieces in a puzzle” as they roam Berlin after the fall of the Wall, and discuss not only the immediate aftermath and their reservations as events quickly unfold, but also their personal past – the complicity and the heroics – and the postwar cultural and historical forces at work.

The re-occurring arguments and insights of the two old men serve as a potent vehicle for the musings of Grass, but these ideas get lost in the shuffle as Too Far Afield soon falters. Though Grass contends in the book that a plot is often only “the slightest moving of chairs,” an avalanche of asides and wayward details topples them over completely (although one wishes that the “sheer madness” of the historic wall-tumbling revelry would also barge in and at least knock over a table lamp or two).

There are the expected and welcome touches of surrealism, black humor and symbolism that Grass is known for. A couch in the agency’s attic is continually stuffed with once-important papers until “so plump was the sofa with secrets.” Wuttke begins a campaign to save the old-fashioned elevator in his building, which has carried the high and mighty up and down again. And, touchingly, he befriends the beleaguered and eccentric head of the agency, who relieves stress by roller-skating through the hallways at night.

But in addition to such engaging digressions, Grass parades through the pages a distracting number of go-nowhere subplots and come-and-go characters. In one forced bit of fancy – more cultural flirtation than a fully realized piece of magical realism – Wuttke’s and Hoftaller’s lives are tied to those of two 19th-century figures, one a classic German writer and the other a literary figure, respectively. While the resulting and ricocheting past-and-present identification may be meant to link the times and illuminate certain historical precedents, the execution and effect are largely off-putting and confusing. Grass, in the voice of Wuttke, may claim that “much that was experienced in times past is being recapitulated in our day,” but a case for that contention fails to emerge from the clutter.

As is any paramount message Grass may want to make about current political realities in Germany. In the well-intentioned but spread-thin scope of Too Far Afield, Grass formlessly lumbers on in an imprecise and at times ambiguous manner, while pointed commentary seems to have gotten the heave-ho a couple hundred pages back. While the novel does to an extent uphold the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize declaration that “In his excavation of the past Gunter Grass goes deeper than most [as] he unearths the intertwined roots of good and evil,” much of Too Far Afield goes much too astray.
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Excerpt:

His ancient eyes gazed without blinking, the smile had faded. Nor was another spoken later, when they were both seated in the Trabi. It was not until the had reached Kollwitzstrasse, where they had driven without stopping, that Fonty’s day-and-night shadow had accumulated enough material for a response. “Right again, Wuttke. Nothing’s really over. Everywhere our derelictions dog us. No wonder Tallhover’s biographer totes up nothing but bungles. … For instance, the Luxemburg woman should have had ’round the clock surveillance. … Kautsky, too. … In 1910 Lenin comes to see him again. … And at Luxemburg’s place on Cranachstrasse. … We should have swung into operation, should have got down to business at the right moment; the story would’ve turned out quite differently. … Ah, Fonty, sometimes I wonder, like your Immortal: `What’s the point?’ I’m getting tired … losing my grip … losing sight of the meaning … really need help. … Yes, yes, we have to talk it all over, man to man. Best to do it tomorrow, in the rowboat … but don’t want to get ahead of myself. Have a good rest, Wuttke. You’ll need your strength.”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch