The Call of the Toad.
Review copies of the German original sent out by the publisher in April bore a printed request on the title page: "No reviews before May 10, please." But, of course, Der Spiegel by late April already contained one pro, one con, and so it began. Soon afterward a commentary on Grass's reaction appeared also, and Stern published his further lamentations about his critics. Anyone as politically outspoken as Grass is not going to get off easy in his reunited fatherland, which he has denounced in the shape it has been taking.
The publishing house in Gottingen had prefaced the mailing of review copies with a cautionary note: "On this occasion, also to quell unfortunate rumors, we would like to inform you: The Call of the Toad is part of our fall program. Upon special request by the author, the book is receiving preferential, expedient treatment, and will come off the press for the Leipzig Book Fair [in May]."
Leipzig, as the center of the publishing industry in prewar Germany, is considered a place of special significance not only for book dealers but also for critics; it was thus a symbolically laden place for Grass to give the premier reading from his new book, on May 7. No reviewer was to be able to look inside the volume before that date and hour; one was to write the review the next night in order to be in print in the weekend editions of May 9/10.
Why such hullabaloo? Not because of the potential controversiality or substance of the book but because Gunter Grass is a legend, and one that some would destroy, were it possible. I would term this kind of buildup toward a new Grass volume in Germany (an event less earth-shattering when viewed from afar) anticipatory anxiety. Strange as it seems, the new story hardly seems worth it on the one hand, and even on the other certainly does not deserve to drown in personality clashes and political animosity, if not hatred. Are these more fashionable German neuroses of the new era, or perhaps an outbreak and intensification of latently existing ones? Television critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki's tirade is against Grass, not the book, and against the person rather than the author, at that. This kind of personal vendetta is not literary criticism. If Grass the fiction writer has nothing more to say (as some claim), Reich-Ranicki the so-called critic has even less left to say; besides, it has ever been true that Grass the citizen has all the more to say politically during fictionally dry times. It may well be this double talent and role that aggravate his antagonists. An outspoken critic of a galloping reunification process for Germany, Grass infuriated many at its recent new beginning (such as it is), only to find the present state of that process proving him right almost daily. It is that simple a truth, but the citizenry, in this case represented by large numbers of literary critics, wants no truth. Strangely, it does not want fiction, his fiction, either.
Yet The Call of the Toad is a delightful story for the most part, of Grassian scurrility for sure, but a modest book of uncomplicated, unpretentious structure and honest intention. No multiple levels of narration, no intricate fusions of past-present-future, but a simple, linear tale. If it has become controversial, this is surely not because of literary merit or a lack thereof (few of the critics bothered to discuss it in terms other than cliches and plagiarisms of each other's terms) but because of the book's treatment of the German-Polish relationship, the politics of the great changes in East-Central Europe, and its Asian component (insofar as this was picked up at all), and because it does business with life and death and the warning toad calls about it all.
A quick first reading is surprising: Is this a Grass work wanting to be wholly apolitical for once? It might want to but it can't, because of Grassian consciousness and because of humankind, which never leaves old animosities and new ambitions alone. Politics does interfere in the private sphere of a late love between widow and widower, in the public life of a German-Polish reconciliation idea.
A German-Polish Cemetery Association (GPCA) is founded at the beginning of the friendship between a German professor and a Polish woman in their 60s who meet while buying flowers and fall in love while cooking mushrooms. Germans, once driven out of Gdansk, shall have the chance to be buried there. Via computer, the refugees are sought and found. Just as readers believe they have found some peaceful late-night reading, Alexander and Alexandra must acknowledge "that somewhere and certainly in graveyards, the cursed politics must have an end." But neither they nor author nor reader can escape it, and so the Polish woman's line, "In death enemies stop being enemies," remains questionable. And right here lie the causes for this tale turning controversial: It can be read as a highly touchy, delicate matter, if one does not choose to read it as satire (Germans, where is your humor?). The pair's beautiful reconciliation idea is increasingly burdened by past, present and even future. The time of their meeting is during Germany's political change, the opening of the borders and visa-free travel also for the Poles at long last. It is the time of the takeover of East by West with capital and giant enterprise. What started humanely and honorably as an idea is twisted and corrupted by big business, so that our pair is first retired from GPCA management to honorary posts, but then quit, because nothing is left of honor.
Jewish persecution enters into the already heavy, dark Polish-German history on the occasion of a gravesite visit. A sinister past is staring into the face of present-day business deals in the reburial of the dead, and the building of residential housing and golf courses for the arriving relatives of the newly deceased. This goes on to the chagrin of the couple, until they can no longer recognize their original idea of the German and Polish peoples' reconciliation.
Where does this project lead, which once had a good beginning? Toad warnings are heard between the lines all along, and are listened to and even recorded by Alexander and Alexandra on excursions outside Gdansk. The Vistula Delta has quite a few more toads left than the Ruhr region where the professor has lived since the war. Just as the environment is no longer toad-friendly, their warning calls are not liked or heeded in politics. What will become of that Germany, this Poland, the former Danzig and today's Gdansk? In the country, a few last toads croak their warnings; in the cities, the centers are clogged - "everywhere gridlock, stress, noise" - which offers Grass an opportunity to be the ecology/ economy-minded writer, and to play on a theme that has stirred his imagination for years: Asia will descend upon Europe.
On his travels to India and Southeast Asia, Grass has convinced himself of that fact. For the Gdansk street scene he therefore invents the Bengali Mr. Chatterjee and his cousins, whose rickshaw business is already flourishing all over Europe. While interior problems of the Continent are still being debated, Asia takes hold in its cities, giving hope for here and for there.
All Souls' Day 1989 to May 1991: What happens in Europe and what's contributed by Asia the narrator relates from a distance of seven years (close to the year 2000), basing his account on source material sent to him by Alexander Reschke, just before the wailing call of the toads - "Woe is me!" - is fulfilled, in politics anyway. But where has our pair gotten to, and especially, where win they be buried?
The comic spirit, satire and irony that we have come to expect with Grass are intact and have to be savored directly. Only a close, leisurely reading will allow for the enjoyment of the quiet, patient and self-assured tone of voice in this tale. This is prose that has and takes time. You can rest up and smile while reading this book. Yes, politics does always interfere in the task the aging pair has set for itself. All idealism is overshadowed by ironies, yet Grass shows himself superior, in a phase of his artistry in which he has overcome the excited and aggressive ways of earlier years. He takes account of how we are doing with our globe close to the millennium and with our time that, in his term, is "paspresenture" all in one. Not only Poland, Germany, Bangladesh: There is also a little Sweden, a little Italy.
And the so-called New World is there too. Grass has dedicated this volume to Helen Wolff, his American publisher. Presenting this book to the public in Leipzig, site of the original Kurt Wolff publishing house, takes on symbolic meaning. The changes are already here; it is for us to make good of them, according to the pair's example. These are times open to fresh opportunities, Grass seems to say, let's not waste them. This is his warning by way of his tale set in a fictitious Gdansk. It will be a meaningful book to the many who left "home" persecuted or voluntarily, and who live on different continents now, wondering at little old Europe and its astonishing new developments, as well as about their own changing relationships to the old countries. Whoever came from Danzig is not yet old, but no longer young, either.
Is this story the work of a writer advanced in years and career, an Alters-werk, as reviewers hastily wrote (and in their haste missed or misunderstood vital parts of the book, such as its Asian component)? I believe it is not the "old" writer but the smart, cautioning, perhaps wise one. All the warnings Toad Grass called in before October 3, 1990, are turning out sadly true. East and West Germans are not integrating socially, psychologically or economically; the costs of this false "union" are staggering, and ill feelings are running high. How will the German-Polish relationship fare alongside this ailing nation? Warnings were and are in order. In spite of themes inspired by aging, death and the burial business, this is not one last tale by one about to leave the stage - on the contrary. Grass turns 65 this year. He will still say and write a lot, because he, in spite of appearances, cares deeply for Germany and for humankind globally. For that reason, he will speak and write in a warning voice. Obsessed with the future, therefore with life, he convinces us that he just wants a decent existence for the people.
His fellow Germans are thankless because they fail to understand his criticism as a sign of loyalty. And when attacked, Grass fights back. He scolded his critics as a media mafia who want to "finish him off" and who find fun in destructive practices. The book is perfectly wonderful in its powerful language and secure in matters of style (as even Reich-Ranicki has to admit), and the story is wonderfully fictitious, yes, even whimsical at times, yet richly imagined: After all, it could be .... But Grass the political person must be given negative reviews, since revenge must be taken on a "true leftist" who had found the German reunification dangerous. Not literary criticism, but criticism of political opinion and therefore intolerance are at work here, a white-collar version of the ugliness displayed in the street of late. Of course, the German journalists involved deny that this is so. Matthew Schreiber of Der Spiegel thinks that Grass is taking the easy way out when he defends himself by claiming the attacks are politically motivated. Yet never has the truth of this been more obvious. Fortunately, the dynamics of debate work in such a way that the book reached its fourth German printing during its second month, before any foreign-language translations appeared; no doubt "media victim" Grass will survive. He will even prevail in the controversy and emerge as the one "who was right," as Schreiber laments. And that's just it: In the final analysis, all this is not about a book and its literary merits at all, but about who wins the argument.
Which only leaves to say: Among the reviewers in the major German papers there was the usual token woman. I know of entire groups of professional women who have independently come to certain conclusions about German men of a certain generation as a collective: They love to argue. They not only know everything better but they know everything for sure, and everything better for sure. The Besserwisser (know-it-alls) have advanced to Sicherwisser (know it for sure). Oh dear - this is ominous, as ominous as any toad call may be.
The German unification and the open borders into Poland and other Eastern countries are, of course, part and parcel of the book. Sensible is the writer who presents ever a warning voice. East German writer Stefan Heym at 79 was beaten up recently because he, along with Heiner Muller, Christoph Hein and others, wants to save a few things that were good about the old G.D.R. This could happen to Gunter Grass. He has been threatened numerous times, and not only in literary hanky-panky, only because he wants the best for Germany, its relationship with itself, with its history and contemporary issues, and with its neighbors. World opinion need not forever be that the Germans just love to fight.