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Homeland Balancing Act

By Merle RubinMerle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor. / October 20, 1992



GUNTER GRASS, Germany's best-known living writer, came of age just around the time of Germany's defeat and division after World War II. A consummate craftsman (he had been apprenticed to a stonemason and studied art before embarking on his literary career) and a stunningly inventive storyteller, Grass is most famous as a powerful satirist, keenly alert to fluctuations in the political atmosphere and outspoken in expressing his own convictions.

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From his first great success, "The Tin Drum" (1959), throughout his career, he has staunchly refused to allow his countrymen to forget their Nazi past. And at the time of his country's much-cheered reunification, he was a vocal opponent, viewing the growth of German power with alarm.

In his latest novel, "The Call of the Toad," Grass takes a somewhat kinder and gentler, but still critical, view of the German tendency to expand.

The scene (as in many other of his works) is Grass's native city of Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk, where a Polish widow and a German widower meet, fall in love, and come up with a brilliant - and, they believe, humane - business idea.

Alexander Reschke is a 62-year-old art historian born in Danzig, which, following a brief period as an international "free city" after World War I, was reclaimed by the Germans, only to be given to Poland after World War II.

Alexandra Piatkowska, his Polish counterpart, is a gildress, who earns her living restoring gold leaf to time-worn artifacts. She was born in the Lithuanian city of Wilno, then a part of Poland, but subsequently returned to Lithuania.

Alexander and Alexandra have both undergone the quintessentially 20th-century experience of displacement, he as a German expelled from post-war Poland, she as a Pole who had to leave Lithuania.

Accompanying the vivacious widow on a trip to her parents' grave in Gdansk, where her Polish family settled after leaving Wilno, the visiting German widower is struck by something she says in her charmingly direct, Polish-flavored pigeon German: "Naturally Mama and Papa prefer to lie in Wilno cemetery than here, where everything strange was and is."

People, the pair readily agree, have a right to be buried in the land of their birth. Or, as Reschke puts it in his grandiose German style, "What we call home means more to us than such concepts as fatherland or nation, and that is why so many of us - not all, to be sure, but more and more as we grow older - long to be buried in our home soil."

From this chance meeting emerges the "Polish-German-Lithuanian Cemetery Association." Reschke and Piatkowska set about acquiring land and permission for their scheme. (In Gdansk, the Poles are obliging, but in Wilno, the Lithuanians are still too concerned about getting rid of the live Russians to contemplate the prospect of dead Poles.) With the aid of a new computer, the efficient Reschke combs the directories of his old school in Danzig for the names of Germans who might wish to buy burial plots in th eir former homeland.