Crabwalk by Gunter Grass

crabwalkbookcover.phpI happened to stumble onto Crabwalk when I was researching the sinking of the German ocean liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in January 1945 while evacuating civilians from the Courland Pocket in German-occupied Poland.   The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the largest disaster in maritime history, with 9,343 dead, including about 5,000 children.   Gunter Grass weaves the historical sinking of the liner and the real life assassination of Swiss NSDAP leader Wilhelm Gustloff, who the liner was named after, into a fictional narrative.

The novel is told from the viewpoint of journalist Paul Pokriefke, who was born on the night the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk.   His mother, Tulla , was one of the few who was saved when the ship sank in the frigid waters of the Baltic. Tulla has been obsessed with the sinking for her entire life, even though she became an ardent Communist in East Germany. She was not very nurturing or affectionate towards her son, who she has continually berated for neglecting what she calls his duty to write a definite account of the disaster.   His own life has been rather dysfunctional, and he is estranged from his wife and son, Konrad, called Konny.    Tulla dotes on Konny  as the one who will rightfully commemorate the Wilhelm Gustloff.    Konny has created a website dedicated to the liner and its sinking.

In his efforts to understand his mother and, indeed, his own life.   Paul has devoted much of is life to researching the sinking of the ship.   His musings jump back and forth from the past to the present, “scuttling backward to move forward” as Grass puts it.   There is a great deal of information about the actual sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, much more than is found in most of the historical accounts of the event.  Grass dedicates a substantial part of the novel to the outfitting of the ship and the career of the man who sank it, Captain Alexander Marinsenko. As a history buff I found this all very interesting.   I was unaware of the circumstances of the assassination of the Swiss Nazi Wilhelm Gustloff until I read this novel.   Gustloff was shot by David Frankfurter, a young Jew who had witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany.  After killing Gustloff, Frankfurter turned himself in saying ‘I shot because I am a Jew”.

Paul make the disturbing discovery that his son Konny has adopted the role of Nazi leader  Gustloff on his website..   His main opponent in many online debates is a young man called Wolfgang, who is not Jewish but argues from a Jewish perspective. Paul is very concerned about his son’s anti-Semitic posts, but Konny shrugs that it he does not hate Jews personally, he   Paul tried to establish a rapport with Konny, without success.   Tulla increasingly distances herself from Paul, who she calls a failure.

The reader can increasingly sympathize with Paul, who becomes further and further estranged from both his son and mother. His ex-wife seems to have little respect for Paul. Apparently his preoccupation with is career led to the dissolution of his marriage. Paul is unable to find solace or rapprochement with his son or mother.    Meanwhile, Konny has set up a meeting with Wolfgang at the site of a former Nazi memorial to Wilhelm Gustloff, who was recognized as a hero by the Nazi regime. Wolfgang spits on the ruins of the memorial.   Mirroring the original assassination of Gustloff, Konny shoots and kills Wolfgang, declaring “I shot because I am German.”  To Paul’s horror,  the imprisoned Konny becomes a martyr to Neo-Nazis.

There is also a rather enigmatic figure that Paul calls his “boss”, or “the old one”.  His boss urges Paul to write about the sinking of the ship because he himself failed to do so.   The boss may in fact be Gunter Grass himself, interjecting himself into the book.  The dialog between Paul and the “Old One” is intriguing.

Crabwalk  is a fascinating novel that juxtaposes past and present both on the larger historical and personal levels. The novel can be rather stilted and awkward at times, which may be the fault of a translator. And yet to me this merely added to the authenticity of the voice of the narrator. Crabwalk’s bleak narrative spirals down a path that is increasingly dark and fatalistic, though the reader is aware at all times that any decision along the way could have changed the course of events, both in the wartime tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and in Paul’s own life. Gunter Grass delivers a stunning affirmation that the past makes us who we are today, though this is not pre-ordained.

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