The onion is not a refined vegetable. It is a cheap, humble staple used in cooking the world over. As a representative of German literature, Günter Grass has always been the onion to Thomas Mann’s artichoke–down-to-earth, exuberantly realistic, picaresque rather than sophisticated or Olympian. Peeling the Onion fulfills such expectations and more. In Grass’s literary memoir the onion is a metaphor for the complex and slippery layers of human memory: “The onion has many skins. A multitude of skins. Peeled, it renews itself; chopped, it brings tears; only during peeling does it speak the truth.”
In The Tin Drum, the 1959 novel that made his reputation and won him the 1999 Nobel Prize, the onion brought both tears and truth, but there Grass was sending up the clammed-up world of early postwar Germany, which lacked the words–the conscience–to come to terms with its recent past. “In the Onion Cellar,” the title of a famous chapter in the novel, refers to a popular nightclub in Düsseldorf’s Altstadt (Old Town) run by a man whose hobby is shooting sparrows on the banks of the Rhine. At the club, he ceremoniously serves onions with cutting boards and knives to his guests–businessmen, doctors, lawyers, artists, government officials and their wives, mistresses or secretaries–who sit at scrubbed plank tables slicing the vegetable. The ritual produces a flood of bottled-up tears accompanied by confessions, revelations and self-accusations. The onion juice overcomes the post-Nazi inability to mourn, diagnosed by psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich some ten years later as the social pathology of the West German “economic miracle.” But there is something fundamentally suspect about this kind of “overcoming.” Grass’s satire laid bare the ambiguity of such self-serving confessions.
Düsseldorfers always knew that the model for the Onion Cellar was the artists’ hangout Czikos in the Altstadt. When The Tin Drum was published, the Czikos was still famous for its piping hot, generously peppered goulash, which indeed brought people to tears, if not to confessions and revelations. In Grass’s memoir, the Onion Cellar acquires another dimension. It was at the Czikos in the 1950s that Grass and two friends performed their own version of jazz–a flute, a banjo and Grass’s washboard in lieu of Oskar Matzerath’s tin drum. Czikos, Grass informs us, was also the site of an encounter so typical of the mingling of things German with things American at the time. One evening, after a jam session in Düsseldorf, Louis Armstrong dropped in. Intrigued by the flute’s transformation of German folk songs into jazz rhythms and blues, Armstrong had someone pick up his horn at his hotel, and then sat in with Grass and his friends on a few tunes. Blues in the Onion Cellar: The scene richly suggests how American culture could nurture rebellious–though still apolitical–energies during the postwar restoration under West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
The Tin Drum, by contrast, was explicitly political, satirizing everyday life under Fascism and the postwar emotional hardening of the collective German mind (evoked by the Onion Cellar’s theater of repression and self-indulgent release). A landmark in postwar German literature, the novel confronted Germans with the legacies of the Third Reich in the ambiguous tale of Oskar Matzerath, the tin drummer. Matzerath’s story spans the war and immediate postwar years–roughly the same period of many of the events retold and transformed in Grass’s memoir. But where the novel creatively transformed life into literature, the reader now witnesses the process in reverse. Here, however, almost fifty years after the publication of The Tin Drum, it is Grass’s legacy as truth-teller that is in question.