Perhaps it's fitting that the 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Günter Grass, should be the one to see the old millennium out in style. His My Century
is comprised of 100 short chapters, one for each year of the 20th century, each told by a different narrator. And of course, since Grass is German, the century he refers to is German as well--a fact that could prove a little daunting to readers not familiar with the intricacies of that country's history. "1900," for example, throws us smack in the middle of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion from a German soldier's point of view. "1903" jumps us into the head of a young student who, clad in a new boater, admires the first Zeppelin, buys a copy of Thomas Mann's latest book, Buddenbrooks
, and attends the launching of the world's largest ship, Imperator
, among other historical events. "1904" is concerned with a miners' strike and "1906" is all about German-Moroccan foreign relations.
Yet as year succumbs to year and one narrative voice piles on top of the next, My Century becomes more than the sum of its parts. And Grass always manages to surprise. The chapters "1914" through "1918," for example, rather than being narrated by the usual suspects--young soldiers in the trenches, worried mothers at home, embittered war widows or shell-shocked veterans--are relayed by a '60s-era young woman who brings two great German chroniclers of the war together. As the now-elderly Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) and Ernst Jünger (On the Marble Cliffs) meet and spar over the course of several meals, their reminiscences of the Great War present two radically different views. Jünger, for example, says: "I can state without compunction: As the years went by, the flame of the prolonged battle produced an increasingly pure and valiant warrior caste..." Remarque's response is to laugh in Jünger's face:
Come on, Jünger! You sound like a country squire. Cannon fodder quaking in oversized boots--that's what they were. Animals. All right, maybe they were beyond fear, but death never left their minds. So what could they do? Play cards, curse, fantasize about spread-eagled women, and wage war--murder on command, that is. Which took some expertise. They discussed the advantages of the shovel over the bayonet: the shovel not only let you thrust below the chin; it gave you a good solid blow, on the diagonal, say, between neck and shoulder, which then cut right down to the chest, while the bayonet tended to get caught between the ribs and you had to go all the way up to the stomach to pull it loose.
It may be Remarque and Jünger talking, but the prose is pure Grass. The years leading up to and including World War II are narrated by a variety of voices: a communist in a forced-labor camp in 1936; a schoolboy "playing" Spanish Civil War with his classmates in 1937. The events of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, become inextricably linked with the November 9, 1989, fall of the Berlin Wall, as a German schoolteacher gets in trouble with the Parent-Teacher Association for his "obsession with the past." Indeed, it is the way Grass mixes past and present, the voices of the famous and the ordinary, that lends such power to My Century
; and by the time he brings the reader up to the last weird and wonderful chapter, his century has become ours as well. --Alix Wilber
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From Publishers Weekly
Nobel laureate Grass's deft new collection of stories thoroughly and intimately marks the passing of the 20th century. Comprising 100 monologues, each named after a year of the century and spoken by characters who represent a broad spectrum of German society, the work becomes the literary equivalent of a choral symphony. The stories include the reminiscences of ex-Nazis about their activities in 1934; a dead woman's perspective on Germany after the crumble of the Berlin Wall (1999); a delirious letter by the turn-of-the-century poet Else Lasker-Sch?ler (found by the story's narrator in a used book), in which she imagines herself to be 20 years younger than she is (1901); and the author's descriptions of his beleaguered personal life (1987). Several entries establish some continuity from year to year, while other segments clash brilliantly with each other. The volume progresses less like a narrative than like an argument, each year's oral history advancing the thesis that history and personal identity are inextricably linked. Unlike Grass's earlier politically tinged and more willfully surreal work, this novel is consistently realistic, with only a few exceptions. Although the units are always engaging, some of them are drier than others, based upon abstruse but suggestive information, such as the details of munitions manufacture or obscure battle maneuvers. The effect of the episodic narration is a sort of cacophony, but one that is finally resolved into a complex, multipart harmony. Much like the voices echoing in a train station or airport, this cumulative sound reminds the reader of the rich fabric of humankind's collective existence. Grass (The Tin Drum) concludes with the memories of a 103-year-old woman who has been brought back to life by her novelist son for the purposes of his fiction. As she says: "I'm also looking forward to the year 2000. We'll see what comes of it... " (Dec.) FYI: This volume will be published simultaneously around the world.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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