Peeling the Onion

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By Gí¼nter Grass. Harcourt, 425 pp, $32.95, hardcover

The English translation of Gí¼n ­ter Grass's memoir, Peeling the Onion , is the literary scandal of 2007. In it, one of Germany's best-known postwar novelists confesses to a stint in the SS near the end of World War II. Given the anti-Nazism of Grass's work, the furor is understandable.

Peeling the Onion uses as its metaphor a near cliché: Grass notes that not only are onions endlessly nested, but they bring to tears those around them. Elsewhere, he points out how ill-suited onion skins are to ink: too slippery, too resistant.

That's an important, if subtle, point because Onion is as much reluctant novel as revelatory autobiography. Throughout, Grass obfuscates or claims to be lying outright. ("I cannot or will not remember whether once the verdict had been delivered by a duly appointed barracks court I took part physically in delivering lashes with the Wehr ­macht belt to the naked ass.") Then he goes out of his way to showcase his own guilt: "I can take care of the labeling and the branding myself. As a member of the Hitler Youth I was, in fact, a Young Nazi. A believer till the end. Not what one would call fanatical, not leading the pack, but with my eye, as if by reflex, fixed on the flag.”¦I saw my fatherland threatened, surrounded by enemies." Then he claims to have played jazz with Louis Armstrong and fought alongside a young Joseph Ratzinger. Then he lambastes his own The Tin Drum , the "practically omnivorous novel" that was largely responsible for his 1999 Nobel Prize in literature. Then he claims to have nothing to recall: "I am like a gold digger shaking his sieve, I shake and shake, but no sparkling nugget, no speck of wit, no echo of a daring metaphor turns up." Then he writes with perfect longing and seeming honesty about his hungers: for food, for sex, for art.

Is it old age that prompts these confessions? (Grass was born in 1927.) I think it's something more. In 2001, W.G. Sebald delivered a series of lectures published posthumously as On the Natural History of Destruction , in which the noted novelist and academic argued that Germans would be doomed to artistic mediocrity until they could acknowledge their personal and national guilt. Furthermore, Sebald believed that psychic destruction was as inevitable as the physical kind Germany experienced during the war. Grass, ever moral, is perhaps heedful of Sebald's curse, doing his bit to reintegrate his self and his fatherland the only way he knows how.