Book Review: Too Far Afield, by Guenter Grass
Reviewed By Bruce Rhodes
The way to get the most out of this novel is to be both well-versed in German literature (especially the work of Fontana), as well as to be knowledgeable about the history of Germany, and of Berlin in particluar. For me, to read this book was to embark on a rigourous journey of two extremes:
On the one hand, I did not understand and thus could not appreciate the no doubt rich literary commentaries and allusions that surrounded Fontana; I am simply not conversant with his writing. All I could do in those parts of the novel was read what was written, and wish that I had read Effi Briest, etc. first.
On the other hand, I was at times mesmerized by the depth and breadth of Grass's probing and questioning of historical issues pertaining to Germany and Berlin. By my having spent the equivalent of almost a year in Germany, including time in Berlin in the 70's, 80's and 90's, I was able to grasp Grass's commentary on the transformation of Germany and Berlin into one country and city, respectively, from their previously divided conditions. Grass makes all sorts of subtle and clever references to certain streets, neighbourhoods and buildings ("the hall of tears") in Berlin, as well as to various historical incidents and figures (e.g. the "Goatee": Walter Ulbricht), referring to them by their locally-known idioms or nicknames; this rich aspect of the novel, which, gratifyingly, made me feel very close to the author and to the story, will likely be lost on readers without a firm grounding in 20th century German history. The historical commentary is usually highly concentrated, at times hypnotic in its relentlessness and directness; I often found myself mentally exhausted from having to concentrate as much as I needed to, to follow the threads of discussion and inquiry. Invariably, though, I wanted to do nothing more than keep reading, so compelling is Grass's writing style.
I did not want the book to end; I did not want to say goodbye to Wuttke|Fonty. I was sad that the exhilarating experience of reading this novel was over. I felt a certain wistfulness toward Germany, its people and its turbulent history. One can tell that Grass both loves his country, and is most wary of its history and circumstances.
One needs to invest a lot of emotional and intellectual energy to get through this novel, but so long as the reader is conversant with German literature, German history, or, ideally, both, it is well worth the effort.