As I write this, Gunter Grass tributes continue to proliferate globally. That most of them focus on the man who "hid" his past is hardly surprising, for when one of the literary world's most widely-read Nobel Laureates died in Lubeck, Germany, on 13 April 2015 he left behind a complex legacy.
For almost 10 years now, any assessment of Grass was overshadowed by his revelation in 2006 that he had served in the Waffen-SS of Nazi Germany in 1944. Grass was only 17 in 1944 - a fact that meant little to those who saw his admission as a form of betrayal by someone who had long been an unambiguous critic of Nazism. Till 2006 Grass had been an icon, a poster-boy almost, for many.
Even his physical appearance marked him out as an intellectual of the new age, someone who preferred to see his extravagant literary style as a form of "broadened reality" rather than "magical realism" because it never deviated from his insatiable involvement with social and political issues. Unsparingly critical of German history (primarily Nazi ideology) during World War II, Grass opposed both the building of the Berlin Wall (1961) and, paradoxically, the reunification of Germany when that Wall came down at the end of the 1980s.
To Grass, however, this opposition was all of a piece. A prisoner of history in ways his readers were as yet unaware of, he was skeptical of the fragile papering over of his country's recent, menacing past, wary of newer dangers were a united Germany to reinvent itself. It wasn't unbridled nationalism or even neo-Nazism that worried him he said in the context of the first Gulf War of the 1990s, but the "unchecked lust for profit" that made governments support what was - not right but expedient. He was referring to his suspicion that his country had armed Saddam Hussein but the ramifications of such expediency are limitless as we all know.
The Tin Drum, the first in Grass's three volume "Danzig Trilogy" was published in 1959. Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963), the other two novels in the trilogy, were less successful and The Tin Drum became the insignia so to say of his oeuvre. Set in what used to be the "free city" of Danzig (now Gdansk) in Poland where Grass was born, The Tin Drum works its terrible power through the near-total silence of its protagonist Oskar Matzerath, an adult in a child's body, not born that way but become so out of choice, his choice to stop growing physically when he is three.
Oskar's toy tin drums become his only means of communication, his staccato thumping occasionally punctuated by shrieks that can shatter glass. His life runs parallel to the progress of a War whose horrific perversions are reflected in Oskar's own erratic experiences after Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany and then the Soviets. Though the end of the War sees Oskar wanting a quieter life, he is eventually confined on grounds of insanity. It is here that he writes the account of his life which is The Tin Drum.
Oskar was Grass's means to his real end, a novel about the Nazi years in his birth city. Because writing to Grass was inseparable from context, Oskar's story in turn becomes a commentary on the larger picture. Physically Oskar is a travesty of the Aryan ideal, the pursuit of which had substantially nurtured the Holocaust, his choices a mockery of the ideological fallacies of Nazism.
In the decades after the War, Grass repeatedly returned to his fear of a nation's collective amnesia about its past. If Germany was his immediate obsession, the lessons contained in its recent history loomed over what was happening globally. Unlike Oskar, Grass could not stay silent. He wrote and spoke of his apprehensions, so much so that he was frequently critiqued by his peers.
John Updike wrote of how Grass, the "celebrity-author-artist-Socialist" had stopped writing novels, preferring to send his readers dispatches "from the front line of his engagement", but wryly confessed that Grass was "one of the very, very few authors whose next novel one has no intention of missing."
The "front line" was in fact more a maze, with Grass espousing a host of social and political causes. He was long involved with the German Social Democratic Party, was stridently critical of organized religion, and wrote poems expressing his wide-ranging positions. One of these denounced Israel for a nuclear programme that could harm Iran, the other focused on what Grass saw as Europe's shabby treatment of Greece during the sovereign debt crisis. His Flounder (1977) incurred the wrath of feminists while My Century (1999) was unambiguous about the brutalities that took place during it.
Shortly before the release of his memoir Peeling the Onion (2006), Grass confessed in an interview that he had served as a member of the Waffen-SS. Before this startling disclosure Grass had been seen as a "Flakhelfer", someone roped in for innocuous jobs. Global outrage was compounded by his silence during the years that he had denounced Nazism, making him vulnerable to charges of moral hypocrisy.
It happened as it did to many my age, he told the BBC, adding that a year after he joined the Reich Labour Service he was called up and only learned on reaching Dresden that he was to be a part of the Waffen-SS. He was taken prisoner by US forces in April 1944 and released after the War ended. Grass admitted that his silence had been a "weight" on him. It was one of the reasons he wrote Peeling the Onion he said: "It had to come out in the end."
By the time Grass came clean on his part in the Waffen-SS he had won several literary and public honours, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, with the Swedish Academy commending his "enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them."
Viewed retrospectively this is almost an ironic preamble to what Grass himself said about his silence, the "recurrent sense of shame" after the war which made him want to conceal what he had "accepted with the stupid pride of youth". In this Grass was not unique but perhaps more human than we, his detractors, would allow, his stances no more hypocritical from the subterfuges of most liberals in their defence of the absolute freedom of truth.
Truth is never "the reward of free spirits… nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves" as Foucault wrote in Power/Knowledge, cautioning that truth was a thing "of this world" and that each society had its "regime" its "'general politics'" of truth.
Vrinda Nabar is an author and former Chair of English, Mumbai University.