Every commentary I have read about Günter Grass’s death recognizes his greatness as a writer and then, almost immediately, reminds readers of his youthful affiliation with the Waffen SS and how he remained silent about it for decades while setting himself up as the moral conscience of his country, not to mention of the world.
Have we really understood the relationship between the magnificent talent of the novelist and his ethical failings?
My first fury-filled encounter with Grass may help to illuminate, though perhaps not ultimately answer, that question.
It was in March of 1975, and my wife Angélica and I had come to visit him in his home near Hamburg, an ample rural house bordering a river whose waters were far more placid than our tormentous get-together.
At first, everything went smashingly well. We had been brought there by our friend Freimut Duve, an eminent editor, human rights defender and social democratic parliamentarian for that district. While Grass cooked a succulent fish soup—I had already heard about his legendary culinary skills—we chatted in English about his work and the colossal influence his Danzig Trilogy had played in my own fiction. Slowly, I slipped into the conversation the main motive, less literary, that had led me to seek this meeting. I was hoping to persuade Grass to add his signature to a campaign in defense of Chilean culture and against the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, a crusade already enthusiastically endorsed by his fellow German Heinrich Böll and other notables, such as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. Given Günter’s left-wing politics, I did not suppose this would be a difficult task.
Nevertheless, when I finished my exposition, he was uncharacteristically quiet for a long while. Then he covered the pot, leaving only some embers in the log stove so that the bouillabaisse could simmer with all the leisureliness it deserved and went off, without another word, to inspect some exquisite engravings that he had been carving that morning.
When he finally lifted his eyes to meet mine,I noted a strange rage shining in them. And then he said, “Why didn’t the Chilean socialist comrades attend the recent conference in defense of the Czech patriots this summer in France?”
I explained that, no matter how much sympathy many Chilean democrats felt for the Prague Spring and the struggle of the Czech dissidents, it was politically unviable to exhibit such a predilection in public. It would have meant breaking with the Chilean Communists, who were at that moment a vital part (indeed, one might venture the backbone) of the resistance to the dictatorship, just as they had been loyal and crucial allies of the government of Salvador Allende, overthrown in the 1973 coup. Allende, I added, had condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.