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.
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.
Before long, the idea becomes a reality. A board of directors, Polish and German, is chosen and the profits - and problems - start rolling in.
Germans returning to Danzig/Gdansk for the funerals of family and friends feel nostalgic. The company's board of directors decides to offer retirement homes in the area. Later, there's a plan for vacation bungalows and a golf course: "Bungagolf." (Those Poles able to afford it would be allowed to join, too.) The influx of German money makes the impoverished Poles eager to cooperate. But Alexander and Alexandra are beginning to have second thoughts. When yet another scheme is floated: a grotesque plan to offer "reburial" for corpses interred elsewhere whose families wish them replanted in "homeland" soil, the widow and widower (soon to be a married couple) fear they've unleashed a monster.
In a curious sort of counterpoint to the backward-looking homeland burial plan, the enterprising Reschke decides to invest a sizeable chunk of the firm's capital in a very forward-looking scheme to establish a system of bicycle-drawn rickshaws to ease pollution and congestion in the world's crowded cities. This is the brain-child of Mr. Chatterjee, a Bengali-born entrepreneur who describes himself as "a forerunner or billeting officer of the future world society, in which the egocentric worries of your c ompatriots will be lost." To Reschke's partner and fiancee Alexandra, however, the clever Bengali is nothing more than a "Turk" - i.e., one of the hordes of foreigners from the East who have been "invading" her beloved Poland for centuries. But Reschke sees Chatterjee - and his urban transport scheme - as a sign of hope for the future.
The saga of Alexander and Alexandra's romantic and business partnership is narrated by a disgruntled-sounding ex-classmate of Reschke's, whom the latter has pressed into service by appealing to their common past. Reschke prefers that the story be told by an objective nonparticipant. The narrator's mixture of factuality, ironic distance, measured sympathy, and sheer exasperation sets the book's complex tone of melancholy, humorous resignation.
Although the story of these middle-aged lovers is relatively simple, almost sweetly cliched, the characters and actions are presented as if seen through a series of lenses that filter, color, magnify, sharpen, yet finally diminish them.
The national and personal flaws of one character are mildly mocked, then counterbalanced by the flaws of another character or group. This lofty distance lends an air of tenderness and pity to the satirical proceedings, but it also serves to make the people and their problems seem smaller than life.
"The Call of the Toad" is a skillful balancing act that juggles some very timely questions about the conflict between calls for ethnic self-determination and calls for international unity and cooperation. But it lacks the energy, passion, and conviction that make readers want to read a novel rather than merely admire it.